If we want students to feel safe to fail, teachers need to model it first.

I worry a lot in my teaching practice. Am I doing the right things? Am I helping my students enough? What if I’m helping them too much? What if everyone finds out that I am a fraud because I really am making it up as I go? I’ve come to realize that many of my worries are really about the same thing: the perception that I should have a better idea about what I’m doing than I do.

    Students have a parallel problem, and it’s called “mastery.” We use this word to describe when students have learned what we want them to, as far as we can measure it. But what have they really mastered? I’m not ready to hand out black belts in biology to any of my AP students, let alone my ninth graders. The reality is that there’s little that a student can master in a two-week unit of instruction or a single year course - just like there’s little great teaching that can be mastered in the first few years with students. My students and I have a common problem: We are compelled to declare success because we don’t know how to talk about failure. Until it’s OK for people in schools to fail, and fail publicly, neither teacher nor student is going to risk or reach far enough to do their best work.

    All teachers learn the term “Zone of Proximal Development,” that place of discomfort that allows students to stretch and grow their thinking. If we give them too much support and structure, we deny students the opportunity to improve. If mastery on a task is possible for every student, are we sure it’s a worthwhile task? I’ve thought a lot about the factors that make students feel motivated and engaged enough to do hard work in schools … as well as about the school structures that stand in their way. I realize now that many of these same factors stand between teachers and their best work. If motivation and engagement for students is tied to that of their teachers, it represents a great opportunity for teachers to model risk-taking and the value of failure in the learning process.

    Kirstin Milks is a science teacher in Bloomington, IN. A few years ago, she and I started working on identifying the elements of school culture that help students to be motivated and engaged in their science learning. The more we looked at our classrooms and our kids, the more we realized the importance of three factors: safety, agency, and interest. A motivated and engaged student feels safe enough with their peers and their teacher to take public risks necessary to do hard work. Students also need to feel a sense of agency in that they have the power to affect their outcomes through their work - the idea that hard work does pay off. Lastly, the work students do needs to be interesting in some way, either because it’s relevant to their life, or perhaps just because it’s a cool puzzle. The answer-key classroom undermines each of these factors. Failure on easy tasks is particularly shameful, and true risks are rare. These discrete tasks are also unlikely to inspire the kind of interest that will make kids dig in and struggle.

    Teachers face all sorts of structures that stand between them and teaching in a way that supports motivation and engagement. The ways we interact with administrators and parents, our colleagues, and even in our self-reflection are affected by this mastery bias. We are compelled to show evidence that students are making progress toward pre-identified, measurable goals. Recently in my district, the teacher evaluation process was changed to promote a growth mindset. This means that, every year, I meet with my department chair to set professional goals for the year, and at the end of the year, I meet with him again to talk about my success or progress toward my goal. Note that I don’t talk about what I’ve learned - I talk about my measurable progress.

    What if I learned that my goal didn’t fit my students and practice? What if I learned something whose value is difficult to measure? My goal completion form doesn’t have a box for this, so I make sure I set goals I can measure and achieve. Not only does this prevent me from writing a goal that stretches my practice (and risks failure), but it sends me back to my classroom with a pre-set agenda and the pressure to collect data in a measurable direction.

    Parents are interested and invested in their students’ success, but they use a variety of measures for this. Some worry most about their child’s grade. Others might be thinking about college readiness or a standardized test. As a teacher getting a concerned call or e-mail, I feel a near-instinctual need to respond, “Yep, we’re doing that in class, and Johnny is making progress.” But what if Johnny isn’t making progress right now? How do we have an honest conversation about this? I would love to be able to say to a parent that their student and I are going to do some foundational work about motivation and engagement, and it’s really going to pay off, but it’s going to take two years. I believe conversations like this would help kids, but I’ve never had one because I’m scared.

    The words we use to talk about our work affect the way we think about it. I am lucky to work with thoughtful, committed colleagues … all of whom fill out the same goal boxes and field the same parent e-mails that I do. When we talk about students and our courses, we often end up talking about the things that are working in our class or the places our kids are struggling. Noticeably absent are discussions of the things we’re struggling to understand, or the crazy idea we’d like to try, or the questions that underlie multiple aspects of our practice. We don’t talk about stretch, and we don’t talk about failure.

    In a culture where we need to claim we’re getting 80 percent of our students to mastery, there isn’t the time or the safety to reach for more, and so we adjust our assignments and our answer keys accordingly. In doing this, we remove the other two components of motivation and engagement: teacher agency in curriculum and interest in doing cognitively demanding tasks in favor of teaching lessons that feel safer. In this way, we never get the opportunity to practice regular creative failure. This undercuts teacher creativity and passion for continual learning, and puts a ceiling on quality of teacher practice - exactly the opposite of the goal of all of the well-meaning stakeholders.

    Schools that are risky for teacher practice have negative consequences for students. When students are assessed at a trivial level of detail, low levels of effort can be enough to be successful. It’s only in high-risk tasks that effort shines through, but if these aren’t a regular part of classroom work, students never get the opportunity to practice failure. Failure then becomes an unfamiliar and scary thing to be avoided, rather than a culturally validated part of the learning process.

    What does it look like for failure to be valued? There are great examples outside of schools. Supercell Games is a young company that makes some of the most popular mobile games in the world. It is also famous for being a company that celebrates failure. CEO Ilkka Paananen explains why this is so important - and what we can learn from his company. “We don't pretend failing is fun — people dedicate their lives to gaming production and sometimes the products get killed — but we get so much from that failure. We analyze and talk about what went well and what didn't. We pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate what we learned.1" These statements encapsulate the truth that teachers and students need to live in: Failure can be painful without being shameful. There is a difference between accepting that failure is part of the design process and accepting failure as an outcome. Confounding the two keeps teachers and students from being what they can be, and undercuts everyone’s sense of motivation and engagement in the process.

    If we want to create schools where kids feel safe to fail and take the risks necessary to grow, we need to start by modeling that practice with the way teachers talk to each other, work with their supervisors, and plan their classes. If we make it safe for teachers to fail and learn publicly, we’ve made it safe for them to do their best work, and also modeled to students the idea that failure can be painful and cause for celebration at the same time. If we replace declarations of mastery with a stance of inquiry and continual improvement, then we remove preconceived ceilings for success. Isn’t that the kind of school we’d want our own kids to go to?


1. Kelly, S. (2013, November 13). Gaming Empire Supercell: We Pop Champagne Every Time We Fail. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://mashable.com/2013/11/13/supercell-apps-success/

Stephen Traphagen is an AP Biology Teacher and Staff Technology Coach at Rolling Meadows High School in Rolling Meadows, IL. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation and is interested in ways that educational technology can help students overthrow their adults in schools. He does not yet know what he is doing and is not afraid to admit it.

Strudel, and Students who Struggle

What does it mean to struggle?

   As my eyes scanned up the left column of page 1164 in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.)1, they first landed on “struggle for existence.” According to Merriam-Webster’s, struggle for existence means, in part, “the automatic competition (as for food, space, or light) of members of a natural population that tends to eliminate less efficient individuals … ” How appropriate. I teach biology, so why not apply evolutionary theory to the classroom?

   This survival-of-the-fittest philosophy was exactly the approach by a science teacher colleague at one of my former schools. I expect that there is likely one or more of these militant teachers at each of our schools. “We will always need people to work at McDonald’s,” she argued in department meetings when challenged about her take-no-prisoners approach to teaching chemistry. Indeed, even now I am reminded of “In Defense of Elitism” by William Henry2, which I read in grad school while working on my masters in science education. I vividly recall the ongoing moral and logical battle in my head as I read Henry’s surprisingly persuasive argument against egalitarianism. ”I am not supposed to agree with this,” I thought as I tried to imagine my ideal classroom where all students had the opportunity to succeed and where all students were happy and motivated and hard working … and successful. But how else can we find the future economists, doctors, inventors, scientists, artists, and teachers if we don’t present our students with an environment that sifts out those who cannot survive the struggle?

   Struggle. What does it mean to struggle? Back to Merriam-Webster’s.

   Just above struggle is strudel, “a pastry made from a thin sheet of dough rolled up with filling and baked.” I’ve never made strudel, but I can follow a recipe. Even as a biology teacher all I need are the right ingredients - yay, Next Generation Science Standards! - in the right proportions - yay, bio team and district biology curriculum! - and some sweet filling - yay, fun lab activities and HHMI short films! - and everyone learns the science of biology!

   Oh, if teaching were only as simple as making strudel.

   “I imagine it’s pretty hard to make good strudel,” my language-arts-teacher wife Sarah called back as she walked out of our home office after reading the first half of my unfinished essay.

   “It can’t be as hard as good teaching,” I replied.

   “Nothing is as hard as teaching,” she said.

   Even if teaching were as simple as following a recipe for strudel, many schools don’t have access to all the ingredients, let alone the highest quality ingredients. Perhaps enough of the ingredients are there to get by but not all the tools. No rolling pin. Not enough mixing bowls, or they’re too small. And, even if the oven is functional, there may not be enough time for all the ingredients to interact and combine into that final product that is so wonderful and unique that it can never again be separated into its original ingredients. This is the student success story I am after.

   Struggle. Merriam-Webster’s has two definitions. The first is that to struggle is “to make strenuous or violent efforts against opposition.”

   Wait. Should my students “make strenuous or violent efforts against opposition” in my classroom? What is opposing my students in my classroom? Is it the language of biology that is pushing back at them? Is it the complexity of cell signaling, or a muscle contraction, or a food web, or a biogeochemical cycle? Is it their ADHD, the fact that they have an IEP or a 504, or something else not even related to school? What if it’s me? Am I the opposition? I am supposed to make my courses rigorous, aren’t I? Indeed, rigor has been quite the buzzword in education for some time now. My goal in my classroom should be rigor, and if that causes my students to struggle, well then, rigor is working.

   However, in the popular blog “The Paper Graders,” writer and teacher Sarah Zerwin argues that, as I’ve illustrated above with struggle, we have a similar problem with the concept of rigor. In one post3, Zerwin reveals that the meaning of rigor includes “rigidly severe and harsh:”

   “There should be absolutely nothing about learning that is rigidly severe or harsh – except for our efforts to protect student learning spaces from all things that seek to make them rigorous according to the definition above,” she explains. “I think what we mean when we say ‘rigorous’ is a whole collection of concepts. To define that work for my students, I present them a list: thorough, all-out, assiduous, careful, complete, comprehensive, conscientious, detailed, in-depth, intensive, meticulous, scrupulous, sweeping, whole-hog.”

   So perhaps “violent efforts against opposition” isn’t the right interpretation of struggle.

   Merriam-Webster’s second definition for struggle is “to proceed with difficulty or with great effort.” Ah, yes, now we are closer. This interpretation describes many of my students. Many of my students find the science of biology difficult, and many do proceed “with great effort.” Still, a few appear to proceed through my classes with ease, and a few don’t proceed at all: They give up. How can I facilitate that great effort for every student? How about constantly reminding my students how smart and capable they are?

   In their February 2012 “New York Times” opinion piece, “Building Self-Control, the American Way,” authors and neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang argue that we shouldn’t say to children, “You’re so smart!” when they accomplish a difficult task. Instead we should say, “Wow, you kept working on that math problem until you got it right!” This, Aamodt and Wang suggest, “carries a clear message about the desired behavior. Communicating high but achievable expectations confers tools for real success.4

   OK, it’s starting to come together for me now. Yes, we should let kids struggle in our classrooms. But we must make it crystal clear what we mean by struggle. Our students must embrace that, for many of them, the work required to understand the concepts and connections will be difficult and may require great effort in the form of time, reassessments, and rewrites. Teachers are also not the opposition. We will do our best to give our students the ingredients, the tools, and the time so they can proceed to learning and success — and good strudel — even if great effort is required.


1. Struggle for Existence. (1998). Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (p.1164, 10th ed., Vol. 01)

2. Henry, W. A. (1994). In Defense of Elitism (p. 45). New York: Doubleday.

3. Zerwin, Sarah. (2014, November 30). One Week Later: What's Resonating After #NCTE14 [blog post]. Retrieved from http://thepapergraders.org

4. Aamodt, Sandra, and Sam Wang. 2012. “Building Self Control, the American Way.” New York Times, 19 February 2012, p. SR5.

Paul Strode is a biology teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, CO. Except for five years completing a doctorate in ecology and evolution at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Strode has been teaching high school science since 1991. Strode has a master’s in science education from the University of Washington (Seattle), has authored several journal papers on the effects of climate change on bird migration ecology, and coauthored the book, “Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails)” with Matt Young.Paul Strode also blogs as Mr. Dr. Science Teacher.

On struggles and smarts

I was recently conversing over the dinner table with a cousin, a high school senior, faced with the grueling process of college applications. As an educator, I was interested in how he saw his educational experiences - his successes and challenges. When asking his siblings their own understandings of when they felt particularly accomplished, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by their responses. My cousins, not unlike many students I teach in my suburban, generally upper-middle-class high school just outside of Los Angeles, feel particularly successful when they “get an A.” My cousins note that they are proud of the classes they have done well in - as determined by the notation on their transcript. When asked what classes they struggled in most, my cousins responded, “in classes where the teachers weren’t very good.”

    Without shame, as a third-year teacher, I will admit that I am desperately, daily, afraid of the terrifying reality that, when it comes to teaching, I’m “not very good.” When my students struggle, I am often tempted to feel as if I’m letting them down: Perhaps I should have sequenced content more logically; perhaps they needed more scaffolding; or perhaps my own goals for them are simply set too high. Or perhaps, just perhaps, there was value to my setting up scenarios in which I expect students to struggle, to grapple, to not come easily to answer. When I intend for students to struggle, and they do, even when I explicitly remind them I’m expecting and hoping they do, I feel a sense of my own failure.

    But it goes beyond feelings, because the truth, at least in my educational context, is that struggle and success have vastly different meanings for different students. The idea of struggling with course content means one thing for my second period AP Biology students who are, perhaps for the first time in their educational careers, realizing that memorization doesn’t equal understanding when it comes to biological concepts. (Their parents struggle to understand why their ‘brilliant’ child isn’t earning an A+.) This “struggle” is a strikingly different meaning of “struggle” than those expressed by my sixth period English support class, students who would be grateful to grasp a line of their English teachers’ instructions for literary analysis, and whose parents truly struggle - in the best and worst senses of the word - to support their children's education in a language and culture that they find unfamiliar. So to what degree do I encourage these students to struggle? To what degree do I actually want them to struggle, and to what degree do I want them to more easily come by success?

    I believe one challenge to our views of the concept of academic struggle is that it is so intimately complexed with our understanding of what it means to be smart. Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls our attitudes and responses toward challenge, failure, and success our “mindset,” of which she identifies two types, growth and fixed. Her research, together with the work of other social scientists and psychologists such as Claude Steele and Howard Gardner1, indicates that our perceptions of our own identities, skills, and abilities, as well as our responses to failure, are major determinants of ultimately successful outcomes. And while the graduate student in me wants to believe a simple reminder to students that “it’s not about the product, it’s the process,” my words are quickly and continually undermined by the context in which I teach. I might say - and indeed, as a science teacher I frequently do - that I’m not as concerned with right answers, that I’m more interested in how my students came to their reasoned conclusions, but the truth is I will turn around and score multiple choice assessments to which I know there are right and wrong answers. The truth is, I am preparing my English Language Learners to speak a language where there are mispronunciations, improperly paired subjects and verbs, and CELDT2 tests that will place them in next year’s English development class if they answer incorrectly.

    It is often said that as teachers, we teach who we are. As someone who achieved school success and, sure, enjoys a challenge (at least, a challenge I know I can accomplish), I wonder how I can teach my students to enjoy challenges in which they are not sure they will be successful. I wonder how I can show my students that struggles have benefits when I, myself, despise struggling and failing in my own teaching. Anecdotally, we learn that it is the process, not the product, that matters most. And yet, do we - do I - truly measure the process? Are there places where we are rewarded for our stumbles and falls equal to the reward we receive for winning first place?

    We tell students the aphorism, “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” And yet, we must ask ourselves: Are we OK with our students, our own children, ‘missing’ the marks we and they set for themselves? What are the consequences of allowing students to not be successful in all domains? Is it possible to see ourselves as competent and, indeed, as smart when we haven’t accomplished a goal we ourselves set?

   I believe part of the answer lies in helping to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be smart, and, thus, what it means to struggle. The definition of “smartness” has not been a novel any one individual has written, and yet my students and, admittedly, I tend to have read the same unwritten text. While smartness continues to be defined and evaluated as the fastest, least error-ridden, most confidently provided answer, I find it hard to make progress in my classroom toward encouraging the risk-taking implicit in struggle, to champion failure as a harbinger of future success, or to reward the perseverance required when solutions don’t come easily. In many ways, this is a personal challenge to me; there are teachers whom I respect who have been able to take steps in this direction. Yet I have to believe that - in order to redefine struggle, smarts, and success for all students - we as an educational society need to find narratives of successful struggle that resonate for our students, as well as modes of assessing progress, perseverance, and authentic grit that can be externally rewarded by high schools, by colleges, by the workplace, and ultimately, by students and teachers themselves. I look forward to the day my students understand that their success was marked by, and indeed, the direct result of, their struggle. 


1. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

2. CELDT: The California English Language Development Test is a required state test of English proficiency mandated for all students whose primary language is not English. Students have the ability to place out of English Development classes through a combination of their scores on the verbal, written, and spoken portions of the CELDT test and their performance on yearly, state-administered standardized English exams.

Sophie State is a third-year high school instructor at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, CA. She enjoys the challenge of teaching freshmen and AP Biology as well as an English support class. As a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow and Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow, Sophie spends a fair amount of time reflecting on how she can better incorporate scientific practices, academic discourse, and a growth mindset in her work as a new teacher. In her spare time, she relishes the task of being a San Francisco Giants baseball fan in Dodger country, pining for the rain of her native northern California in parched Los Angeles, and trying to find time and space to get out for a run.

Failure is not an option.

When students first walked into my classroom this fall, many of them immediately noticed a large quote on the wall above the whiteboard: “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.”

“You want us to fail?” they all asked incredulously.

While they were skeptical of my intentions at first, by the end of that first class period they were already starting to see how failure could actually be a good thing.

    As my students started to learn that first day, I have this quote hanging in my classroom not because I have a desire to see any of my students fail the class but as a constant reminder of the powerful learning that occurs when people have to - or are given the opportunity to - struggle through challenging material and fail a few times along the way. In my AP Biology class, this does not mean that I simply sit back and watch students grasp at straws as they tackle really difficult material. What it does mean is carefully selecting tasks for students to work on that might not have one clear answer or only one possible approach, and then providing them the space and the skills to work through the challenge and reflect on their process and struggles as they go.

    My interest in focusing on this type of productive struggle in my class came from both a strong belief that people learn more when allowed to struggle than when provided all the answers and from realizing that students (and teachers) usually get the opposite message in school. Too often teachers are told that all material must be scaffolded for students. While scaffolding can be a good thing in the classroom, it is sometimes taken to mean that all material must be broken down into such small and simple steps or chunks of information that students are all able to be successful every step of the way. If a significant number of students in a class are not able to immediately find the answer, this is often seen as an indication that the teacher did something wrong either in presenting or breaking down the material.

    Students, as a result, often get the message from early on in their education that if they do not immediately grasp how to solve a problem or get the right answer, they must not be smart or good at that particular subject. With years of training in this way of thinking, it comes as no surprise that students often respond to challenging work by either immediately asking the teacher for help or by giving up.

    My main concern with this approach to teaching and learning is that it simply is not authentic to either the practice of science or just about anything else in life. Most real-world problems are complex and do not come with clear steps to follow to reach a solution. If we are not equipping students with the skills to tackle such problems - by supporting them in struggling with challenging work in our classrooms now - then we are simply pushing the issue farther down the road when students will come up against bigger challenges in future classes, in college, or in their careers. Providing our students with the confidence and skills to approach challenging work without an overwhelming fear of failure - and providing the mindset to see the failures they will have as opportunities to learn something - is far more important and transferable than any set of facts we could teach them.

    After thinking through the messages students had likely heard for years about the meaning of struggle and failure, and the importance of those two things for their learning, I decided to focus more this year on shifting their mindsets around struggle and failure and on providing structures to support them in working through difficult content productively. I wanted them to get the new message that struggle is often actually a good thing for their learning and that their intelligence in science has nothing to do with how quickly they are able to get an answer. But I knew I had to think carefully about how to convey the message and how to support them in developing the skills to tackle more challenging and open-ended tasks. I also knew it would not be easy; kids have been hearing the opposite message for years and should not be expected to entirely shift their mindsets overnight. In fact, at times it has been an uncomfortable struggle for me as a teacher to not only try to get students to embrace this new approach, but to also keep myself from immediately intervening and providing answers when I see students going down the wrong path or unsure of what to do.

    To start the conversation, students read and discussed an article1 the first day of class that tells the story of two scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, on a quest to create a radio telescope sensitive enough to study radiation in the Milky Way. The two men faced a long series of what seemed like failures as they were unable to get rid of persistent background noise coming from their telescope. After a year without progress, Penzias and Wilson finally reached out to another scientist, Robert Dicke, who instantly realized that the static they had been hearing is radiation from the beginning of the universe, which he had unsuccessfully been searching for. As the article notes, what the men had considered a failure was in fact just an answer to a different question … one that happened to lead them to win the Nobel Prize in physics. After reading this article, students then discussed how it shifted their views of science and scientists and how it began to shed light on the meaning of the quote above the board.

    With the conversation started, we have continually returned to it throughout the fall, especially before, during, and after any labs or activities that I know students will find especially challenging. We have two ongoing lists posted on the wall that we add to before and after this type of work, one a list of “what it means to be smart in biology” and one a list of new skills students have learned and are working on in the class. Both of these lists help students see the value in the challenges they take on in class and help them shift their view of the skills they need to work on to be successful. Even more important than creating these lists with students and posting them on the wall is being mindful of the implicit messages that I send as a teacher when giving students feedback and praise in class and on their work. If I say I value certain skills, then my feedback needs to reflect that.

    Another aspect of shifting my approach has been building students’ group work and process skills so that they develop their abilities to collaborate, try multiple approaches, and reevaluate an approach that is not working. I provide them with opportunities before and after each significant group-work activity to reflect on how their skills are growing. As they are working, I have to be constantly mindful of my tendency to step in and redirect groups taking unexpected approaches. When I have done this, however, the most interesting student learning and work products have usually come from those groups I was tempted to redirect who started out on what initially appeared to be an unfruitful path.

    While we have all at some point in our lives experienced the discomfort that can come with struggle, we’ve hopefully all also experienced the investment in solving challenging problems, the light-bulb moments, and the deep learning that comes with struggle as well. I have already seen the value in tilting my classroom more toward one focused on the skills of tackling complex scientific questions. That, of course, does not mean that content does not matter but simply that it does not exist in a vacuum away from the struggles and challenges that helped people discover it. If I want my students to tackle some of the big questions in science - Or math. Or politics. Or history. Or anything. - they need to be prepared to approach complex and challenging issues and to learn from their failures. That is why, in my class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.


1. Lehrer, J. (2009, December 21). Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/all

Helen Snodgrass is in her second year of teaching AP Biology to some pretty wonderful students at YES Prep North Forest in Houston, TX, where she is also the science content specialist for the district. She is currently in her fifth year of teaching and is enjoying learning and trying new things all the time. She feels grateful to be able to work with so many amazing colleagues both in the AP Biology teacher community and through the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.

Struggle

Christopher Schrenk

“Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” - E.M. Forster

Once you make it to your point of making it, you'll appreciate the struggle.” - Nas


For our opening activity, I would like you to think of one human endeavor that has NOT involved struggle.

(Two minutes pass … )

OK, would anyone like to share? Anybody?

(Crickets)

David? Cheryl? Brad?

(Walks around the room, looking at the students’ papers.)

Really? Nobody wrote anything down? Huh …

    The truth is, students struggle every day inside and outside the classroom. Many teachers have control only over what happens inside their classroom walls. (Bless those that have control, or at least influence, outside as well.) Some would say that struggle leads to the tuned-out student who mainly shows up hoping the teacher will pass them along. Some would say that we have cleansed the system of difficulty, all the while preaching rigor, rigor, rigor. This cleansing has then led to the student who wants the immediate answer, the immediate feedback, the immediate response – all to make it easier on themselves. Struggle is not in the modern student’s lexicon. Students have been conditioned by the educational system and the Internet to get what they need or want right away. But is this beneficial to the student or to the learning process?

    In any discipline, analysis is a critical skill to practice. Analysis can be defined as the “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.1” Some synonyms for analysis are: examination, investigation, inspection, survey, study, and scrutiny. It seems to me like there is little room in any definition or synonym of the term “analysis” for giving answers to students; however, there is plenty within that definition to support allowing students to struggle.

    Struggle fosters communication within groups and between groups. Who hasn’t, at some time in their academic career, gone to another student or colleague and asked them, “What did you get?” That simple question, asked from one participant to another, can lead to new questions and new avenues of inquiry. It can lead to trying something that was not thought of at first. It can lead to discovery. All without the teacher giving away any answers.

    Really, teachers need to move themselves (and others) away from the sage-on-the-stage model and more toward the guide-on-the-side model. Teachers need to foster thinking, communication, curiosity, analysis – none of which (in my extremely humble opinion) can be achieved by giving students answers.

    One of the best things I overheard recently in my classroom was the following:

   Student 1: “I’m going to ask him … ”

   Student 2: “You know he’s not going to give you the answer. Let’s try and figure it out first.”

   One small victory.


1. Analysis [Def. 1] (n.d.) In Google Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=definition+of+analysis

Christopher Schrenk has taught science to adolescents in multiple districts for the last 15 years, but most recently in New Brunswick, NJ. Normally, courses taught consist of AP Biology, honors biology, introduction to forensic science, and issues in science. In his spare time he reads and spends as much time as possible with his two kids, ages 6 and 3. He is also a volunteer EMT with his local rescue squad and urges people to do the same.

Our struggle is real.

Michael Ralph

Through struggle we achieve growth, and through growth we become better than we are today.

    Wouldn’t it be horrible if you died as smart as you are right now? It’s a question I ask my freshmen every year in our first month. Perhaps your reaction is similar to theirs, which begins at discomfort bordering on offense. “Are you calling me stupid?” they ask. After a moment passes, they reach my intended meaning. If you are ‘stupid,’ then the answer is, “Yes, I’d like to be smarter.” If you are not ‘stupid,’ then the answer is, “Yes, I’d like to be smarter still.”

    This idea is at the root of the most successful classrooms. It reflects an attitude that anyone’s current abilities are not nearly as important as their efforts to improve those abilities. It has spawned a battle cry for my students this year: “Our struggle is real.” This shift in mindset is uncomfortable to many initially, but it integrates so well with the best practices of STEM education that I can’t imagine running my classroom without it now.

    Inquiry is a central part of my curriculum, but with student-centered methodologies come student struggle and failure. For a narrow selection of students, this process feels natural. For too many, struggle is a source of fear and anxiety. Some students have a history of difficulty in school and don’t want to be seen having trouble. Other students have a history of academic success, and, for them, challenge and risk are terrifying as they view struggle as an indicator that they are not high achievers.

    My response to both kinds of student is the same. I want to find a way to challenge them. Any student who is seen struggling is praised for their growth and determination in my classroom. I apologize to students easily completing tasks, saying, “I have failed to provide you an opportunity to struggle. Let’s find a way to change what we’re doing to better challenge you.” The emphasis on improvement makes scaffolding for students of various abilities a natural extension of our attitude as a team.

    My classroom culture relies on the ability of anyone to become smarter. Dr. Carol Dweck is an excellent source of information on the role of mindset in personal development. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,1 ” Dweck discusses the impact a person’s view of their own intelligence has on their ability to develop over time2. A person with a fixed mindset views intelligence and ability as static attributes that can’t change over time. A person who fails will always fail and will always be inadequate. A person with a growth mindset would view difficulty as an exhilarating opportunity to learn and improve.

    Students (and parents, administrators, coaches, and teachers) need encouragement to transition to the growth mindset. Providing feedback to a person who doesn’t want that feedback will get one nowhere. I spend substantial time early in the year sharing case studies and research data that shows the way people can become better than they are is through struggle. Changing students’ mindsets takes the entire year, but I am explicit in my efforts early on.

    Struggle can lead to growth, but it must be productive and useful struggle. Throughout the learning process, students must get actionable feedback so they understand the path between the mistakes they are making now and the skills they want to have when they are done. Peer review occurs with every lab report and writing assignment. We use recall practice3 two to four times before each summative assessment. Students need to have a visible learning trajectory to be convinced that their struggle is indeed leading to improvement.

    With the stage set for an environment of growth and improvement, grades must change as well. We must move beyond using points as carrots to motivate or incentivize student behavior. There can be no compliance grading. Completion scores, daily points, and busywork worksheets must go. Why would a student work hard and experience struggle if they can avoid it all and get a grade through trivial compliance or memorization? We as teachers must honor their hard work with appropriate marks for struggle, improvement, and ultimately rigorous measures of success. Class marks should reflect a student’s struggle and subsequent growth, instead of their ability to comply with requested behaviors like filling in blanks or putting enough words on a page. Struggle and improvement should be their own rewards.

   Shifting the learning paradigm from compliance to growth is a topic that could fill volumes. However, the first bit of advice is simple, if not always easy: There must be a coherent attitude across every aspect of the classroom. A student can’t be told to take risks but then be punished for straying from the expected path. We can’t ask students to focus on learning but then have a gradebook full of daily points. We can’t ask students to try new things but then quit on new technology after the first glitch ourselves. We all have aspects of education that we love and parts that we do not. If we ask students to embrace struggle, we must embrace it as role models first.

    Every student interaction, every teacher conversation in the hallway, every PLC meeting, every faculty meeting, every moment in the gym or on the field, in every part of the job - we must reflect the mindset we ask of our students. It may be uncomfortable at first. We may fail from time to time. But students can spot a fake from a mile away, and it takes only one offhand comment to undo a year’s instruction.

    The good news is that everyone can benefit from the struggle. We will become better at data analysis, better with technology, better at classroom management, and better at doing science when we as teachers struggle. It is addictive, and students will see that as well. Who knows? After a few years, your life may be full of struggles … and the thought might not be horrible to you at all. 


1. For two examples, see the following: Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American psychologist, 41(10), 1040; Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review, 95(2), 256.

2. Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House

3. Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163.

Michael Ralph teaches biology, AP Biology, and biotechnology at Olathe East High School in the Kansas City, KS, area. He graduated from the University of Kansas through the UKanTeach program and focuses on implementing inquiry in the classroom. He is also an author of “Biology Rocks!” (an inquiry-based biology curriculum), an AP Insight consultant, KABT treasurer, volleyball player, motorcycle rider, husband, and citizen.

Productive Struggling

Claire Overstake    

Should we allow students to struggle in the classroom?

    Of course we should. Struggling teaches students perseverance, teaches students that everything won’t be easy and that some things in life are worth fighting for. When we introduce complexity into our classrooms, we allow students to grow not only academically, but also personally as they overcome obstacles, find other ways to attack problems, and learn to think outside the box. However, to help students the most, and to build an enduring attitude that challenges can be overcome, instructors must find ways to make the struggle beneficial and educational.

    Please keep in mind that there is a distinct difference between futile frustration and productive struggle. As instructors, we need, to paraphrase “Apollo 13,” to make failure not the final option. If I have not prepared a student, or they truly don’t understand, it is futile for them to spend time struggling to overcome something they are not prepared to do. However, if a student is prepared, and does understand, but the work is difficult, then they are ready for productive learning, which may include productive struggling.

    As an instructor, it is important to know your students and to learn if they are experiencing futile frustration or productive struggle. If a student attempts the challenging problems and struggles, that struggle needs to be productive eventually. It doesn’t mean they earn a 100 percent, but that the student learns that the struggle itself was worthwhile. In my middle-school class, we talk about neurons firing when a student is struggling with an answer, and we wait for the student to work through possibilities. We learn how to bounce ideas off each other, to write statements and then question them, to think out loud and on paper, to draw in our notebooks, to respect each other’s ideas and then to build on them together, and to honor the struggle as part of the process. Most of my students relate well to learning to shoot a layup and the struggle it was (or is) to shoot with the nondominant hand. We use this analogy when we are productively struggling to learn. “It’s just like shooting a layup” is a safe way for a student to let me or their partners know they are struggling. It is my job to prepare them to overcome adversity in all parts of their lives.

    Unfortunately, we have all had students who, somewhere in the past, have been taught it is better to not attempt a problem rather than to attempt it and fail. They sit and do their best to be invisible; most won’t raise their hand, don’t do any work when they are in a group, and do little classwork or homework. Somewhere in their past, the struggle was such a futile frustration that they quit trying. These students have to be retaught to struggle productively. If I allow students to miss the hard questions because they chose not to answer them, then I am teaching them that when the work is complex, when things get difficult, it is an appropriate alternative to not attempt to meet the challenge. These are the students that we must reteach that failure is not a final option. We must come along beside them and reteach them how to struggle productively, which is not an easy task. They need to see us acknowledge students who persevere. We have to work to build in them the knowledge that struggling is an important part of life and awaken in them the confidence that they can struggle productively.

    How? We need to build an environment in our classrooms where failure is not an option because struggling and perseverance are as important as the correct answer. We need to teach perseverance and model different ways of working through complex challenges. By teaching our students how to struggle productively, they should not be overcome by frustration. Science classes are the perfect environments to teach and encourage perseverance. Students can learn about inventors’ failures and successes and how they overcame problems through perseverance and productive struggle. Students can experience their own failures and successes through experiments and inquiry. In science classes, instructors have many opportunities to introduce complex problems and issues and allow students to struggle as they try a variety of solutions. Students learn to communicate about the ideas and solutions they’ve already tried that failed and to work together to find alternative solutions that are successful. These communication skills, and the perseverance to solve a problem that is difficult, are skills that employers find valuable in the workplace.

    We need to give our students chances to learn from productive struggle, with engaging, purposefully difficult problems. We need to ask challenging questions and to allow students the time to work out solutions, encouraging them through failures and allowing them to do it again and again and again if needed. As I walk my classroom and listen to students working together, trying a variety of solutions to solve a problem, they reflect my own willingness to struggle and overcome. We have conversations about difficulties; we talk about disabilities; we build an environment where failure happens - but it isn’t the final option. We may spend twice as long on a lab as I had wanted, but their productive struggles are worth the extra effort to introduce ways to overcome adversities.

   Should we allow students to struggle in the classroom? Yes, if it is part of a productive struggle that enhances learning concepts and builds perseverance and self-esteem.


Claire Overstake has been teaching for more than 25 years. She currently teaches sixth grade science at Stucky Middle School in Wichita, KS. In 2010, she earned the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation's highest honor for public school science teaching. Claire is a member of the Kansas State Science and Engineering State Fair Board and the Kansas Exemplary Educators Network. She is a resource person for the American Meteorological Society, a master teacher mentoring first-year teachers, and serves on the science team adapting next generation science standards. In 2014, Claire earned the district's Excellence in Public Service Award. She and her author husband Grant live in Wichita.

Falling is not failing.

Educating people in science means you traffic not only in facts, those memorized bits of knowledge about the stages of mitosis or gravitational attraction, but also in the practices of science, too. After all, science is as much about habits of mind such as quantitative reasoning, evaluating others’ claims, and communicating ideas as it is about our current factual understandings. More than anything, science is a way of thinking that encourages revision based on new findings - a way of thinking that’s paramount for successful adulthood.

    If you want to help develop these habits of mind as a teacher, you’ve got to help students learn to communicate verbally, in pictures, and using charts and graphs. You’ve got to get students to design, conduct, and analyze experiments. You’ve got to design tasks that are right at the edge of what students can currently do so they can go beyond what they currently know. You’ve got to get learners feedback so they can refine their work. And that refining is the biggest key; to improve, they have to do these things again and again and again, learning from their mistakes.

    All of these situations make student thinking public in a very real way, a way that involves substantial personal risk. One students wrote about our class and said that he quickly found he couldn’t “hide or coast; what [students] know and can do is visible all the time.” If we ask students to put their thinking out there, to lay bare the details of their intellectual struggles in front of peers and teachers, we have to double down in thinking about how to motivate and engage students to overcome the discomfort of being wrong.

    Stephen Traphagen, a science teacher in Illinois, and I started talking a few years ago about what this process looked like in our classrooms. We quickly realized that keeping students motivated and engaged in challenging, rigorous work means designing tasks and creating contexts where students experience safety, agency, and interest. When we can give students all three experiences, we transform how students perceive failure: from a permanent reflection of their intelligence into a worthy and useful learning experience.

    I vividly remember the first time I realized the power of safety in my own learning. High-school me missed scarcely a point in a full Advanced Placement course load, won a free ride to college, and showed up feeling prepared to start her biochemistry degree ... but then badly failed her first chemistry exam. She eventually slunk to the professor’s office and bawled for a good 10 minutes while the patient gentleman on the other end of the table held a tissue box. I had no previous experience with my intellectual performance being anything less than exemplary.

    Here’s what I know now: falling is not failing. That upset kid at office hours picked herself up, listened to the feedback she was given by that kindhearted professor, tried some new strategies, and graduated as a chem/biochem double-major with honors ... and, eventually, earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. I am grateful that I got the opportunity to struggle intellectually, and overcome that struggle, early in my adulthood. From that point forward, I’ve felt brave, secure in my capacities in a way I never did through 13 years of gold stars.  

    As a teacher, you have to make your classroom fit your values. I knew when I started teaching that the high schoolers entrusted to my care would taste both struggle and subsequent success, and I’m still learning how to encourage intellectual risks in a safe environment. My details might be different from the ones you work out with your students, but there are four features that have been important in my journey.

    First, students and I focus on the process of working together. We develop codes of conduct, we practice giving constructive feedback, and we check in explicitly on process as class unfolds. I am very clear about my requirements that we are all respectful, responsible, and reflective, and I offer many low-stakes corrections early on. By the time students have to display their thinking in potentially vulnerable and high-stakes ways, the vast majority of them trust that their colleagues and I will respect their thinking and offer help for improvement.

    Second, I offer opportunities for revision, right from the start of the class, woven throughout the work that we do. The mechanics aren’t as important as the attitude: I’m going to reward you for looking over your work, taking feedback, and improving.

    Third, students shouldn’t fail if I’m to blame. I believe my students should never experience failure because I haven’t checked in or because a task has flaws I hadn’t anticipated. If you’ve worked with students to co-construct your class culture, they are even likely to tell you a task is broken or ask for specific help well before helplessness sets in.

    Finally, and most importantly, you have to show students that you too are taking the same kinds of intellectual risks you expect from them. Be excited and transparent when you introduce a new activity, and acknowledge when things don’t go as you expect. Let students see you taking notes on their performances and conversations as they engage in a task. Explain your reasoning when you ask them to do tasks that seem overwhelming, and take it seriously when those tasks remain overwhelming for longer than you’d anticipated. Ask earnestly for student feedback and input, and show your students explicitly how you are taking their feedback into account.

   These four practices help my students and me create an educational space where kids can feel safe enough for the work that makes them really scientists: the iterative practice that blends science content and science practices authentically and with rigor. Students are going to fall sometimes, but I’m trying to help them see ways forward and possible next steps to success. I’d like to think there are still gold stars in my classroom, but now they’re not final decorations on a job well done. Rather, we award them together to recognize triumph and for the valor it takes to persevere.


Kirstin Milks teaches at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, IN, where she learns with and from AP Biology and Earth/space science students. She is a senior fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, a former Woodrow Wilson Annenberg Fellow, and was recently named a National Board Certified Teacher. 

Letting kids struggle in class

Lynn Meldru

Inherently, the issue to be discussed is one of struggling and its impact on learning. Students and their parents wrestle with the idea of struggle, the possibility of failure, and both the student and parent aspirations for a positive outcome in life. Educators have the responsibility to provide foundation and guidance to reach that ultimate goal of learning. Somewhere along the way, the process became separated from the outcome.

    I see learning as basic problem-solving. Individuals use prior knowledge and experiences and apply them to novel situations. Learning is not about memorizing terms, formulas, or specific sequences that arrive at an appropriate outcome. Life will present you with new challenges. There is no set roadmap or directions to solve each scenario you will encounter. If true learning has occurred, then you will be able to reflect and analyze, consider the past and present, and look to the future to arrive at a plan of action. If or when that plan does not solve the problem, then the individual will reconsider and approach the problem in a different manner. Problems are not solved in 45-minute blocks of time, nor is learning assessed in a 30-question written test.

    Struggling is not a negative term. Struggle is both a noun and a verb. Most definitions involve the phrase “trying very hard” and the word “achieve.” The word describes the accomplishment of a goal after effort. Most times, that effort involve multiple unsuccessful attempts and revising strategies to solve the problem at hand.

    Struggling describes the process of learning. Learning is innately personal. It occurs after the interaction of the individual’s perspective on the problem and their creative efforts to analyze it. It involves past experiences, their outcomes, and decisions that will result in a plan for the future. Removing the struggle takes the individuality of the learning process away and thus removes the individual’s ability to truly learn. Removing the struggle from the learning experience removes the individual’s learning. Acquiring knowledge and skills to solve one problem will not necessarily help solve a new or different problem in the future. Learning is a continual process.

    As I speak to the student, I want to tell you that struggling is not a sign of being deficient; you are not lacking or incapable of learning. Struggling is an opportunity to demonstrate and strengthen your abilities. It is my job as an educator to provide these opportunities for struggle and to communicate to you that these are gifts I am giving you. Often, the misperception is that the only reason you are struggling is because you are not smart and that concepts are only a challenge for the students who are somehow less capable. I need to communicate to you that you are making your own meaning through the struggle. This is learning. It is to be celebrated. This is the real product of education. I need to put up signposts that reinforce your successes after a struggle. I need to reinforce and help you identify the frustration you feel while you struggle and highlight your past successes. Knowing you were successful after a struggle in the past informs you that you can solve future problems.

    Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” He also stated, “We often miss opportunity because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Edison’s words are timeless. The learning and success that is felt after your greatest challenges will be your most rewarding. One cannot feel this great success without having put in the effort to achieve the outcome. This returns to the definitions for the word “struggle.” Ultimately, if I do not let you struggle, that tells you that I do not trust you. If I fail to let you struggle, I am sending the message I do not believe you will succeed. I do not believe that; I know you are capable. I’m going to create opportunities for you to struggle. I am going to guide you and encourage you. I know you will own your learning.

    As I speak to the parents, I want to address that the purpose of learning is not grades as measures of success. The purpose of learning is about having the ability to meet new challenges with diverse skill sets that are practiced on a regular basis. If learning in the form of struggle is tied to the outcome that you see in the form of a grade, then student growth is hindered. As parents of small children, you are alert for potential harms, bumps, and bruises that occur as children grow. You do your best to avoid harmful situations for your children. Struggling to learn new skills and information will not harm your child. It is a necessity for what lies ahead in the future. Parents need to embrace this part of life and provide reinforcement that these struggles are just that - learning opportunities. Encourage your child; tell them that you trust they are capable.


Lynn Meldru is a biology teacher in a suburban high school in Montgomery County, PA. She has been teaching for 20 years. She teaches AP Biology and is an AP Insight consultant for the College Board, as well as serving as an AP Biology Exam Reader. She has led workshops at the local and national levels and is an active member of NABT.

True learning requires effort and often failure.

"I CAN'T do this, because I'm not good at it" are the heartbreaking words I heard my 11-year-old son say as he gave up trying to play a song on his bass guitar. Of course he wasn't good at it. How could he possibly be good at playing the song he had never really practiced? Yet, for a bright kid who typically picks up new skills relatively easily, his words made perfect sense.

    Our society has become increasingly focused on ‘success’ while increasingly impatient with the tedious, time-consuming process of practice that allows us to develop the skills needed to achieve. We seek shortcuts and envy natural talent while seeing hard work and struggle as things that are only necessary for those that will be mediocre at best. We praise the outcome while hiding the effort needed to get there. In the spirit of esteem-building, trophies are given to 5-year-old soccer players just for showing up. Yet, true self-esteem comes from overcoming obstacles and obtaining the skills that will give us confidence to tackle new uncertain tasks in the future.

    To improve student learning, we need to make struggle and failure a part of a supportive learning process rather than an end point - a reason to give up. In order to prepare our children for the complex world they are growing into, we must provide them with a rigorous learning environment in which each student is challenged at their own appropriate level and provided with the interventions that meet their personal needs.

    Easy classes are a waste of a student’s time. True learning requires effort and often failure. If students do not experience frustration, then they are not being challenged at an appropriate level. In a supportive environment, failure and frustration lead to significant cognitive growth.

    Dr. Carol Dweck's growth mindset theory has become pivotal to my teaching practice. In “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,1” Dweck describes two polarized mindsets - fixed-mindset individuals believe their talents and abilities are fixed, while growth-mindset individuals see effort and overcoming failures as key components to improving their skill level. Students with fixed mindsets view failure as an end point in the learning process, and they will avoid the risk of challenging tasks because failing will identify them as ‘failures.’ I have found the brightest of my students with a fixed mindset are hesitant to seek extra help or try suggested study techniques because they may not believe that additional effort will make a different. Students with growth mindsets seek challenges and see failures as learning opportunities.

    I believe that mindsets are conditioned and changeable. In the spirit of building self-esteem, we often praise children for succeeding in tasks requiring minimal effort and struggle. By doing this, students learn to associate praise with accomplishment and effort as something that is only necessary for those lacking ability. When presented with challenging tasks, many students lack the skills to partition the task into smaller, attainable steps and push through the struggle that allows them to progress toward mastery. They begin to avoid academic risks and become easily frustrated when forced to confront challenging tasks.

    The power of Dweck's theory lies in a teacher’s ability to help students shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. I teach AP Biology to high-ability sophomores, many of whom come to the course with fixed mindsets. Within a few weeks of beginning the course, they realize that this course is unlike any in their past and frustration begins to take hold. Many will admit that their success in school has usually come with minimal effort. Typically the top students in their classes, they are not accustomed to struggling and find it uncomfortable to seek help. They have learned to associate assistance with a lack of ability. While the primary focus of my course is biology, significant time is spent learning how to learn while creating an environment where students feel safe taking academic risks. Effort is expected, and students learn there is no shame in an incorrect response as long as effort has been put forth and they have learned from their mistakes. In-class activities and homework assignments are purposeful in their design to provide students with opportunities to practice the learning that will lead to success while not being overly time-consuming. Frequent, low-stakes opportunities are provided for students to assess their progress while allowing me to provide ungraded formative feedback. Many of these opportunities for feedback prior to a test are voluntary. Rather than complying with a teacher's demand, I want students to see that seeking assistance is a choice they can make to improve their understanding. This helps them to develop into empowered learners.

    On the homefront, conversations with my son when the going gets tough have begun to shift - as has his mindset. We have made a point of giving effort and success equal billing in the praise department. He is becoming less likely to avoid a task he thinks is too hard, and I knew we had turned a corner when we were discussing whether he would be participating at the statewide MATHCOUNTS competition. He had qualified for the competition by earning a high score on the school-level test. Yet he didn't want to go because he had heard the tasks were more difficult and the competition was fierce. Before I had a chance to say anything, he said, "Ugh, I know ... because I think I'll fail means I need to go and give it a try." All I could do at that moment was give him a smile and a big hug.

   Learning is the ability to use prior knowledge and experiences and apply them to new situations. Can we recall the world as we knew it 35 years ago? Can we solve today’s problems with a set of directions derived 20 years ago? We cannot allow our students to be unprepared for the future. They need to learn, and this can only occur through struggle.


1. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Valerie May has taught a variety of biology courses for the past 18 years. She currently is teaching AP Biology at Woodstock Academy in Woodstock, CT. She lives with her husband and son in Pomfret Center, CT, and spends her free time cycling and transporting her son to and from karate class.

Commencement address on struggling

To our principal, administration, school board representatives and distinguished members of the faculty: It is an honor to speak to you today among friends such as distinguished alumni, parents, and family members. Most importantly, it is an honor to be here with you all, the class of 2015.

    I know it is unorthodox for a teacher to speak at a commencement, since most of you thought you’d never see me again or have to hear me ask you to pay attention one more time! But I hope you will bear with me, because I am going to speak tonight on a subject that affects all of us in our lives: struggle. If nothing else, you may have a better understanding of struggle after sitting through my commencement address!

    In my room, room J-106 (perhaps some of you have heard of it), there is a bookshelf. On the side of the bookshelf, almost hidden from sight, is a picture that I can see clearly from the angle of my desk but is not so apparent from yours. The picture is of the mythical Sisyphus. The picture has a caption that reads, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

    If you don’t remember this story, the great writer Camus tells the story of a man, of a mortal man, who is condemned by the gods for daring to put Death in chains so that no more may die. Of course, this pissed off a lot of folks: gods, Death, etc. So Death escapes, but Sisyphus figures out a way to cheat Death and escapes from the underworld. The gods capture him and punish him in a particularly mean way: For all eternity, he has to roll a huge boulder up a mountain. Once there, it will roll down again, and he will have to push it up again1.

    Sound familiar to anyone? AP Biology? Anyone?

    OK, Camus was an absurdist and the point is that the ceaseless and pointless punishment Sisyphus has to do is tragic. Camus had a particularly interesting idea that all of us seek meaning in the universe, but the universe does not care and is indifferent to what we want or the burdens we bear. As an act of almost rebellion, Sisyphus accepts his fate as an extension of his middle finger. He is at peace with an uncaring world.

    Camus wrote: “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the Gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile or futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.2

    This is pretty heavy stuff for a graduation commencement, and no, the English lit teacher did not put me up to this. It could be worse ... I could be speaking about the Krebs Cycle!

    I see that quote all the time, mostly as I lift my head up from grading some of your papers. These are long hours, writing feedback, constantly wondering how I can make your learning experience better, and asking myself how much you should struggle.

    All struggles are not equal, and of course we have personal struggles on top of all of the academic struggles. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

    I know you struggle, and I know it is not easy. Imagine your parents a long time ago watching you crawl, take first steps, speak, make friends, learn rules, play sports, date, get rejected, study, hope, wish, pine, want, and aspire. I myself have gone through this with my daughter. They say that being a parent is a constant act of letting go, watching your kids try things and struggle through them. It’s hard. It is hard to know how much to let your kids struggle. How much is good for them, and how much is enough.

    As a teacher, I too face this. As of course you know, most teachers refer to their students as “their kids.” So having taught many of you as “my kids,” I too have watched you parentally as you took steps in biology and spoke candidly about your lives; overheard you in the hallway speaking just a bit too loud for it to be private; and seen you apply to college or face the reality of life after high school. In class, I have seen you struggle to learn how to study, work well with peers, complete assignments, and prepare for tests. All of you struggled, some silently and some acted out.

    I am not as absurdist as Camus and cannot abide chalking up your struggle as a meaningless task, that you are simply struggling nobly against your fate. My job as your teacher is to guide you as much as I can through your struggle.

    Many in education think that it is necessary for kids to struggle since they live in a ‘soft’ world that has been made easy for them. That they have grown up fortunate and privileged and that they will crumble when faced with adversity. They also say that what you need is a good old ass-kicking struggle and that, once through, you would find within yourself grit and determination. That this struggle will weed out the kids with these qualities - but they never really address those left behind.

    My perspective as your teacher is that struggle is unavoidable and inevitable when you desire something you don’t have. I do not believe that people should struggle without a goal in mind. Struggling with no hope or idea of a potential outcome unfortunately does happen, as the oppressed and enslaved, the Dust Bowl survivors, and those who fought in wars can attest.

    But ours is not that type of struggle. Ours is academic. It can be controlled and helped. You can be guided through the learning, and the struggle becomes less of a burden and more of a pathway to discovery.

    Unlike Sisyphus, our struggle has meaning – it is about meaning. It is not endless, and the content within this struggle can be actually interesting.

    In closing, how much struggle is too much, and how much is enough? I think the answer lies in what you want and how much you want it. I never struggled through my sixth donut. Remember as you move on in your life that most adversity is temporary, and that, if you can make your struggles have meaning or find meaning and interest in what you are doing, the struggle becomes exploration.

    When you have moved on tonight, Mr. Kuhn will still be in his classroom preparing, grading, fretting about how to help kids learn, and sailing the endless sea of grading papers. If you find yourself sipping a latte one night, reminiscing of your time at Centennial and happen to think of old Mr. Kuhn, there in room J-106, think not of him as Sisyphus. Your lives have meaning, and the task of teaching you and helping you learn is not meaningless. No, think of him and all of your teachers as guides, helping you through your struggles so that your life has meaning.

    My best wishes for the class of 2015! Congratulations.


1. The Myth of Sisyphus. (2014, December 1). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:43, December 15, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Myth_of_Sisyphus&oldid=636210259

2. Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. New York: Knopf.

Bob Kuhn has been an educator for 22 years and teaching science to kids at Centennial High School, Roswell, GA, for the past 17 years, mostly in AP and honors biology. In his spare time, he tries really hard to be the great person his daughter thinks he is. His work can be glimpsed at Banana Slug (always current class website) and The Optimist (semi-current blog).

 

More than never, and less than all the time

Let’s begin by noting that all of what follows is based squarely on my own opinions, as relates to my own career, teaching my own students. Inasmuch as it might be useful to any reader, that is wonderful, but I think every reader would do well to remember that the subjective position described below is no substitute for whatever conclusions you may come to from your own experiences. So noted, let’s tuck in.

    It has been useful for me to consider the job of a teacher as one of maintaining balance between opposing forces. Should the class be student-centered or teacher-centered? Should we allow students to make their own meaning or provide them with the myriad meanings made by others? Is the role of the teacher one of telling students what to do or one of helping students figure out how to do what they want to do? This is a list without any particular end. It is also a list without resolution, or at the very least without one true resolution. It shouldn’t be surprising when different teachers reach different conclusions about what it means to teach their particular students or when most of us find a middle path to tread. Nor should we be surprised when the same teacher adopts different techniques from class to class or from student to student.

    It seems to me that struggle is one such item for this list. In my experience, teaching students is a navigation of the tension between letting them struggle with the material they are presented with and giving them the support they need to develop the skills and abilities of learning. How much struggle is too much? How much is enough? Of course the answer is a resounding “it depends.” Still, as difficult as it might be to determine the optimal amount of struggling that students should engage in while learning, I will suggest that the answer is always more than never, and less than all the time. Which is to say that struggle, in some degree, is an essential characteristic of an education.  

    Learning requires an amount of difficulty on the part of the learner. Perhaps the most dangerous popular thought regarding education is the notion that the only good education is a fun education. This notion shows up in a variety of contexts, none of them any less disingenuous to what it means to actually learn something than the others. If we’re being honest, we should admit that the process of learning is often quite difficult and frequently not enjoyable. Why should it be enjoyable? To learn something is to find space within a preexisting body of understanding for something new. Old notions have to be excised and replaced with new ones, a process that generally requires an admission on the part of the learner that they were previously wrong - and are even now only less so (or perhaps wrong in a different way). This is struggle, and it is important, but it is not always going to be fun.

    The work of teachers has been defined in many different ways over the history of the profession. Here is my preferred definition: The teacher makes the work of learning possible. To that end, the teacher must allow students to struggle with the material of a course. This allowance is not something that is easy to do, or that we should expect all students to uniformly embrace. It is also not something that is done as expertly by all teachers. In my own experience, it is not uncommon to have those students who have been deemed the most academically talented express the sentiment that they would very much prefer to be told what to think rather than engage in the work of figuring it out for themselves, and that the pattern of education through dictation has been the dominant one for their academic careers. It is much more comfortable to be trained in what to think than in how to think. It is also much more comfortable to teach students from the purchase of the former. Being able to resist the urge to make a student’s meaning for them is particularly difficult for experts; but, as experts, we should all remember that the way we became experts was not by having other experts do our learning for us.

    This established, we start to see a clear role for the teacher in terms of struggling students. Not only do we have to let students struggle, we also have to make sure that the environment we are providing is one that encourages struggle. To this end, struggle shapes the classroom. Teachers must provide work that demands struggle and provide an environment that makes it possible for students to engage, struggle, and even to fail with the material that is being taught. The expectation should not be one of instant success, but one that requires continuous effort. The one-size-fits-all approach must be discarded and replaced with an equally insistent focus on the best effort of each particular learner. At the same time, teachers should never abdicate their responsibility to guide students through the process. Setting students up to struggle, while not providing them with the structures needed by them to seek assistance, seems to me to be a recipe for lasting damage.

   I don’t suggest that this is an easy goal to accomplish, particularly in the types of school systems that most teachers work in. So much of U.S. public education is failure-averse and offers learners single-shot opportunities to demonstrate their learning. Many teachers who strive to provide the type of environment that I am describing will find that they have to fight to do it. But I will suggest that it is an important enough goal that we owe it to our students to fight whatever battles are necessary to provide such places for our students to learn in.

   How we do this is very much an individual choice. There is no one way to manifest the type of classroom that I am advocating for, and I would be very wary of any person, institution, or other concern that suggested there was one true path to educating students. At the same time, I do believe that if you look at the teachers, classrooms, and school systems that are seen to be most effective (however that term is defined) in the goal of educating students, you will see that, while many start from different operational principles, they all provide the type of environment that encourages student struggle and rewards the attempt. I know that it is what I strive to do in my own classes, and I firmly believe that it is what is best for the students that I am fortunate enough to teach.


David Knuffke has taught science to children in Deer Park High School, Deer Park, NY for the past 11 years, lately settling in to a routine course load of AP Biology and Honors Chemistry.  In his spare time he reads, writes, and tries to find as much time as possible to be present in the lives of his family.  He is the moderator of the College Board’s AP Biology Teacher Community, a New York State Master Teacher, and a diligent tender of an ever-expanding digital footprint.  He is most recently the co-host of “Horizontal Transfer,” a weekly podcast about education.  

Reach

Children converged, as if scrutinizing an alien. And actually, she was an alien, according to the green card that would eventually be issued by her new government. Submerged in the thick unknown, sounds around the alien were muffled and incoherent, her voice silenced by an inconsolable discomfort. A gentle hand from behind led the alien to a seat and provided her with crayons and paper. Books with foreign characters were also set on the table. The older hand of the nameless grown-up enveloped her younger hand to help scrawl letters on the page. The struggle to write and read would persist for a few years yet. Just try, was the implied message. Just try.

    A kind teacher with smooth hair and shiny lips let kids spray foam on desks to write letters with their fingers. The alien did not understand. Her report cards were littered with a smattering of U’s and S’s for unsatisfactory and satisfactory, categorizing the alien’s struggles. How can one know what’s in the mind of a child who does not speak? If the kindly teacher with smooth hair and shiny lips had been evaluated based on the test scores of children like the alien, her salary would surely stagnate as inflation grew. The comments on the report card suggested the alien watch “Sesame Street,” as deciphered by a warmhearted landlady, who became guardian and teacher of things important to life in a new land. “Watch TV” was a curious charge, before the controversy of TV as babysitter that preceded the research on screen-time. The alien grew comfortable with letters by watching “Sesame Street” and progressed.

    The following year, something interesting happened on one particular morning. Mrs. Franklin, usually full of warm hugs, came in with big, dark glasses. Worry and foreboding set in. Mrs. Franklin was the one who nurtured three alien girls, the ones who barely spoke but whispered to each other in a common language. With the trust of parents from a culture that valued teachers, Mrs. Franklin took the girls to her home and provided a simple but rich experience. Cherries were harvested off a laden tree to be eaten with vanilla ice cream. The alien girls learned to spit magenta pits into a white bowl forming trails, then patterns.

    But this morning, something was different. Someone whispered that one of the bigger boys, a two-time second grader with unruly hair and features hardened from a lack of something or someone dear, said or did something cruel - or perhaps it was an accumulation of cruel moments - driving her to tears, the remnants of which hid behind dark glasses. The alien was also missing someone dear, but this brought sadness, not meanness. As much as she tried, Mrs. Franklin could not reach every child, yet each affected her, in small and large ways, at deeper levels than anyone could know. She retired midyear with little fanfare, and Mr. Matsuo took her place. Reasons for her departure were weakly communicated, but her warm hugs and the way she removed frustration from those struggling were deeply missed.

    Mr. Matsuo, stern, intimidating, and bespectacled, was rumored to crack knuckles with a ruler, but no one in this particular class saw that. An argument between two students resulted in both students leaving the classroom to talk it out. The ultimate outcome was a best friendship, and children becoming adults who shared pictures of their kids on Facebook several decades later. The alien learned to read under the firm but fair hand of Mr. Matsuo — in the absence of rulers.

    Then, there was Ms. Erdos, a tall wisp of a woman who encouraged her students through struggles and allowed the alien to express her culture. Sometime before the Lunar New Year, the alien made red paper envelopes to fill with pennies for distribution to her classmates. An errant staple accident occurred, in which two little fingers were stapled briefly together. It hurt, but the alien remained mute, quietly removing the sharp bits, which left two tiny red dots in the tips of small fingertips. The alien returned to her math packets. The struggles became manageable as the alien completed one math packet after another with the help and encouragement of Ms. Erdos, who made the alien fit into her surroundings. Instructions started gaining sense; risks were taken and mistakes were made and then corrected under Ms. Erdos. The alien with U’s and S’s, who did not read until the second grade, was placed in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), learning the rudiments of BASIC and saving on cassette tapes in the days before floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and the cloud. Ms. Erdos cried with the alien when she moved across country a year later with parents who went from two jobs each to one that mattered, weaning off of food stamps somewhere along the way.

    In a new place, the alien was forced to adapt yet again. And she did, with the lessons of those who molded her from elsewhere. The alien started to love reading and picked up increasingly thicker books by C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Susan Cooper. While minding her younger siblings at play, she read on her own in the shade of elm tree canopies, before Ophiostoma ulmi would devastate the arboreal archways of the Midwest. Questions and curiosities were building, requiring answers that did not come easily. Middle school found her placed in one teacher’s class, who recommended and pushed for the alien to be placed in another teacher’s higher-level class in the early days of tracking. The alien, who preferred to remain mute, hesitantly accepted the challenges posed and learned to speak in front of interested and disinterested eyes, despite her preference for silence.

    One teacher after another acknowledged the struggles of this young alien and reached out to meet her reach, challenging her forward toward a greater, yet-to-be-realized future — one in which the alien would become a citizen, seeking incrementally positive ways to impact our society.


Chi Klein serves as the Academic Dean of the Upper School and teaches AP Biology at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, FL. She has a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University. Her interests include encouraging students to follow their intellectual passions and supporting teachers as dedicated professionals in their field.

Letting kids struggle in class

Maureen Jimenez

As difficult as the concept of letting students struggle in class is, personal experience has shown that this is something that helps students grow as learners. Before I allow a student to struggle on their own, I will take time to look into their past history. Throughout the years, there have been a multitude of differences in the students that I have had enter my classroom. But there is one major difference in the students who are struggling in one of my classes. There are students who cannot do the work - and there are students who will not do the work.

    Of these categories of struggling students, the majority of my time and energy will be researching the past performances of the students who will not do the work to see if they are capable. It takes some time to identify these individual students and to see if they will be able to bring themselves up to the standards that are set in the class. One tool I will use is to look at their transcripts as a gauge of their capabilities. Have they had successes in recent years, or even this year? This success indicates achievement possibilities that I will use as bargaining evidence with the student.

    When discussions are held with the student regarding their performance, or lack thereof, their general attitude is taken into consideration. Do they own their behavior, or do they make excuses for their lack of effort? Have they given up, or do they want to try again? For the students who are aware they have dropped the ball, every effort will be made to help them achieve. I will ask what they need of me to help in their path to achieving their goals. A recent student of mine was constantly making excuses for why her work was not completed or why she did not come in for tutoring. She claimed that any time she came in (the one time she came in), all I did was to give her more work to complete. Her perception was that I was piling up more for her to do. I asked her what was impeding her from finishing the work and what could I do to help her be more successful. She was in shock that, instead of anger or blame, I came to her with willingness to do more. She saw that the onus of accomplishing her goals was entirely on her shoulders at that point.

    But not every student is like this or wants to make the effort. For some students, it seems like their personal challenge is to see how much energy I will give before I let them struggle on their own. It is not easy as an educator to make these decisions, but, as a form of self-preservation, we have to know when to let go. We can end up fixated on a handful of students and find ourselves making generalities that all of our students are performing at a low level just because that is all that is seen in front of us.

    We also cannot let the few interfere with the many who are there to learn. The distinction is clear, and the choice is theirs in the end. There is no amount of calls home, detentions, referrals, or parent-counselor-principal meetings that will make this student work. But this is not the fault of the teacher if they have exhausted all other avenues. This is a lesson that the student has to learn.

    One period a day, I teach an online credit recovery class for biology. The students find themselves in the class if they failed the course in the classroom setting. This course is set up for the student to pace themselves through several units that include lessons, projects or labs, quizzes, and a test to be completed in a certain number of class hours. Some of the students enrolled in the class are determined to complete the class to have their transcripts show the higher grade before they are sent along with their college applications. There are also some students who are determined to sit and stare at the screen all semester and have a failing grade recorded on their transcripts a second time. Do I try the above-mentioned motivation tactics on them? Of course, but then there is the point in which I have to focus attention on those who are willing to participate in their learning. Do I think the students who are staring at the screen are learning a valuable lesson? Well, they are learning a lesson. They may not see it as valuable at that immediate moment. I can only hope that there are a few who will contact me years later to share their current successes with me.

    My wish as an educator is that some of these students (because I know all would be asking too much) will catch on sooner than later. They would be able to save themselves time. But they would also miss out on the experience of picking themselves up from their failure. I rarely have to move students for excessive talking and had one student this year who disregarded my warnings. After a couple weeks in her new seat, she was completing her work and her quiz grades were vastly improving. When I made mention of it, she admitted she was happy I took the extra step to try to help her succeed. I said, “Sometimes the Wicked Witch knows what is best for you.”

   She agreed. 


Maureen Jimenez has been a classroom educator for the past 16 years. She has taught a range of students and science classes from ESL and credit recovery to honors and Advanced Placement. She enjoys the challenges and learning that comes along with the career choice she has made. She is someone who is always looking to collaborate and work on production of new and interesting ways to share information with her students and her colleagues. She firmly believes in being dynamic as much as possible and is also willing to admit mistakes and learn from them.

Should we let kids struggle in class? It all depends.

The question as proposed requires some clarification. Are we talking about all students regardless of situation (e.g. socioeconomic status, learning styles, or learning disabilities)? Before considering such a vast variety of learning theories and current practices, we must look at students in light of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs1. Where do students fall on the hierarchy? What struggle are you proposing to address in class? Do students feel safe? Are they well-fed? Do they have a place to live? Are the students in the proper emotional state such that learning is an option? For some of my students, the goal in class is just to feel safe, to be part of an accepting group of individuals, and therefore learning is not an option at this point. However, given that the majority of students would be in that ‘learning place’ higher up in the hierarchy, then let learning theories and practices rule.

    I am a baby boomer, a product of the post-sputnik education generation2. I remember the best of my high school teachers, Mr. Goto, and BSCS biology with all the cool labs3. I consciously modeled my own classroom after Mr. Goto, and also Mr. Wyner and his international relations class senior year, full of project-based learning. I was raring to go when I started teaching. There were state standards and criteria in the framework, but soon after I started teaching high school the state and federal governments came in with accountability and the rush to make sure students could regurgitate facts on the 60-question state test. We were firmly encouraged to ensure the students did well enough to meet Adequate Yearly Progress and to abandon the practices of the past, so that the school and district did not wind up on probation … surprisingly, because of this last year of testing, we are now on probation for the scores on our last AYP4. Frankly, I paid lip service to all that, closed my door, and continued with what I believed worked.

    Ironically now, it appears that we have gone back to the post-sputnik styles after a head-spinning decade of change and acronyms, Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and Response to Intervention (RtI), and being told that failure is not an option5 . We are also encouraged strongly to shift from teacher-focused (sage on the stage) learning to student-focused learning. And let’s not forget the pressures from college and parental expectations6. Lastly, bring on the Common Core state standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which aren’t so bad7.

    Personally, I teach in a wealthy district in California, the state with the largest average class size and which is ranked 26 in revenue per student8. Letting students struggle is a constant balancing act of personal philosophy, district and local administration policies, and parental involvement. I totally support the need for student-driven inquiry for labs and student freedom to choose topics within a prescribed assignment. I set extremely high standards and have high expectations of student performance in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading skills9.

   However, the vast majority of my teaching peers at my current assignment (going on 25 years) only give a student one chance at getting it right. I noticed very early in my career that the every-student-has-a-right-to-fail philosophy led down the road to disaster. No matter how I felt I explained the assignment, I rarely saw my vision realized. The parents and students were angry, school administration got involved, and some students eventually gave up. The few, the brilliant, did great; they must have intuitively shared my vision.

    Luckily, I had a fantastically intuitive progressive role model. She said to just give the students another chance, accept rewrites - a mulligan (if you don’t mind the golf analogy), a do-over. I dubbed this practice ‘defensive’ teaching. A good defense is a great offense to keep people out of my vision of curricular choices. Parent complaining, student complaining, and administration complaining all evaporated. And who knew (I started doing this 25 years ago) that this attitude was renamed “failure was not an option?” I didn’t need to aim at the middle and wind up settling downward with mediocrity, as I was told to do in some of my teacher-training classes. I just needed to build a scaffold of skills well and help students climb Bloom’s Taxonomy along with me10. I adopted the old adage that practice makes perfect - it works for coaches - and that it’s OK to let students struggle. It is freeing to be allowed to set high standards and expectations as long as the student can have a do-over until it is perfect.


1. Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Retrieved from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/regsys/maslow.html

2. Reflecting on Sputnik - Lappan 2. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.nas.edu/sputnik/lappan2.htm

3. BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) BSCS History. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.bscs.org/history

4. Ed-Data. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from https://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us/Pages/UnderstandingTheAYP.aspx

5. Design-Based Research Methods (DBR) | Learning Theories. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.learning-theories.com/design-based-research-methods.html; What is RTI? (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti; All Things PLC. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.allthingsplc.info/; Failure is not an option. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.publicagenda.org/files/FailureIsNotAnOption_PublicAgenda_2012.pdf

6. Parental Involvement and Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis / Browse Our Publications / Publications & Resources / HFRP - Harvard Family Research Project. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.hfrp.org/publications-resources/browse-our-publications/parental-involvement-and-student-achievement-a-meta-analysis

7. Preparing America's students for success. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.corestandards.org/; Access the Standards by Topic. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://standards.nsta.org/AccessStandardsByTopic.aspx

8. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/NEA-Rankings-and-Estimates-2013-2014.pdf

9. Membership. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/aug12/vol54/num08/Support-Struggling-Students-with-Academic-Rigor.aspx

10. Bloom's Taxonomy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://ww2.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm

Robin Groch is a teacher of 27 years, most recently at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, CA, teaching general biology, ninth grade accelerated biology with research, as well as AP Biology for 19 years. She has also taught seventh and eighth grade science as well as ninth grade physical and earth sciences. She retired at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. 

On becoming

The three weeks between Thanksgiving and the first semester exam is my favorite time of year. And it’s not why you might think. It’s the time of year when my AP Biology students truly begin to understand how all the individual content topics and how their respective facts and principles fit together into an interconnected whole. Since August, they’ve worked diligently to acquire a vast body of knowledge, but until now their knowledge has been merely a collection of facts. As Henri Poincaré pointed out, “Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

   I teach in a small school and host two-hour AP Biology study-sessions at my home before exams. As we review the content of the entire semester, they not only realize how much they have learned, but they see recurrent themes and ideas clearly, often for the first time. Protein structure and function, once a series of concepts to memorize, now become intimately connected to their understanding of immunology, neurology, signal transduction pathways, and plant trophic responses. As we examine the diagrams in the text in rapid succession, they discover similar diagrams across chapters.

   They bear the fruits of their growth over the first semester with pride, excitement, and an impatience to learn more. They are now critical consumers of their text, seeing where details have been omitted for clarity, asking questions beyond the scope of the text and course. We laugh together at how hard those first chapters seemed at the time. They linger after class to ask questions they’ve been considering outside of class. They propose topics to explore in more depth after the AP exam in May. They bring in books, mentioned in passing, they’ve gathered to read over break: biographies of Ignaz Semmelweis, Rosalind Franklin, and George Beadle; essay collections by Sam Kean, Mary Roach, and Penny Le Couteur; the writings of Michael Pollan, Sean Carroll, and Carl Zimmer.

   As wonderful as these weeks are, they came only after struggle, moments of frustration and self-doubt, and sometimes tears. Indeed, they would not be nearly so glorious without the struggle. My students own their learning, having earned it with the labor of becoming. Often those who have struggled the most feel the greatest sense of pride. I too swell with pride as they transition from students to scholars.

   As their teacher, it is my responsibility to provide them with not only opportunities to struggle but also the space and time to engage in fully in the struggle. Such opportunities are the intersection of the science and the art of teaching, where head, hand, and heart meet. I stand at this intersection often in the wee hours of the morning when I lie awake, unable to leave the classroom of my mind. Struggle must always be tempered with success. There’s a knife-edge balance between struggle with hope and struggle with despair.

   This is why teaching is, at its heart, about creating relationships. My students must trust I always have their best interests at heart. That what I ask of them comes from my love for them, not a display of power or payment of dues. The building of trusting relationships cannot be underestimated. They must trust that the struggle will yield rewards of scholarship and the success of understanding. I must trust that the struggle is important, especially when I want to swoop in and save them. I must trust that they are in the process of becoming, even on those days when it would be so much easier for all of us if I would just tell them the answers to questions they’ve never asked.

   One of my favorite National School Reform Faculty protocols is “Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger.1” While its original use was intended for difficult professional conversations, it is also applicable to the classroom climate of scholarship I want to create. It is my goal to push students out of their Zone of Comfort: the place where safety resides, where they can predict the outcome and know how to navigate occasional rough spots easily. This is not, however, the place where most learning occurs. The richest place for learning is the Zone of Risk, where students don’t know everything or perhaps anything at all but are open to learning with curiosity and interest. Here, they will consider new options and ideas. They are willing to persevere through difficulties and engage in the struggle to attain deep, rich understanding. The third zone is that of danger. Here, there is so much stress, fear, and discomfort that most cognitive functions are inhibited. When working from the Danger Zone, students often retreat to the Zone of Comfort.

   The boundaries between these zones lie in a different spot for each student, changing with the demands of their lives outside my classroom. I must know when to push and when to support, when to stand impassioned and when to show compassion. I must stretch my students so far they can never return to their original shape but not so far they break.

   Some 30-odd years ago, in my first year of teaching, a beloved mentor left a note on my desk:

   Come to the edge.

   We might fall.

   Come to the edge.

   It’s too high!

   COME TO THE EDGE!

   And they came,

   and he pushed,

   and they flew.

   - Christopher Logue

   I’d come to my mentor in tears, having read through the first student evaluations of my teaching career. While most comments were innocuous enough, there were several blistering remarks along the lines of, “She doesn’t actually teach us. We have to learn everything ourselves.” My mentor, after assuring me the comments weren’t grounds for dismissal, smiled, and suggested I look at the positives hidden in the comment. I couldn’t find any then, but over the years, I came to understand what my mentor wanted me to learn. The tattered note still holds a place of honor above my desk.

   This afternoon, I was twice interrupted from grading semester exams by former students: one in his senior year of engineering, another just completing her first semester of college. As they shared their successes, challenges, and plans for their future, they also reminisced about their time in AP Biology. What they remembered most vividly were those times they struggled the most. Some of those struggles were content-based or the result of failed lab investigations, but most were struggles of becoming a scholar: developing an ethic of excellence, time management, and learning how to learn. Both wanted to make sure that I hadn’t let up; that this year’s class was also fully engaged in the hard work of becoming scholars.

   My former students have taught me that, in retrospect, it’s easy to value the struggle for scholarship. With each success, however, they become more eager to seek out the next opportunity for growth. They have taught me that my challenge lies in helping my current students embrace the struggle and persevere on their journey of becoming scholars.


1. Wentworth, M. (2001, January 1). Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger: Constructing Your Zone Map. Retrieved December 20, 2014, from http://www.nsrfharmony.org/system/files/protocols/zones_of_comfort_0.pdf

Cindy Gay has been teaching science to high school and college students for the past 33 years. She currently teaches general biology, AP Biology and human anatomy & physiology at Steamboat Springs High School in Steamboat Springs, CO, where she has taught since 1998. Cindy is a member of the inaugural BSCS/NABT AP Biology Leadership Academy, an HHMI Ambassador, and a consultant for Bio-Rad. In addition, she is currently serving on the advisory board for the Center for Biomolecular Modeling and works with the College Board on the AP Biology Insight Program. Cindy is the current President of the Colorado Biology Teachers Association. In her spare time, Cindy enjoys hiking, mountain biking, gardening, and spending time with her husband and two children.

Helping students see the value in struggle

Sarah stepped into her freshman year expecting to coast.

    Bright, always a social butterfly, middle school had been a breeze for her. But as the workload piled up, and teachers stepped away from the regurgitation she found comfortable, Sarah found herself increasingly frustrated. The tasks presented required her to think deeply, to discuss, to process a variety of data, to write. She began to struggle.

    All struggle is not created equal. Student struggle is unproductive and futile without conscious, intentional interaction on the part of teachers. Struggle must be fostered, steered, and ultimately overcome by highlighting student strengths, providing constant feedback for self-assessment, and celebrating achievement.

    A student unaccustomed to struggle sinks quickly into frustration and the sort of melodramatic despair perfected by teenagers. When suddenly confronted with tasks that are not easily performed, and that require collaboration with classmates and deep thinking to accomplish, students may find themselves barely treading water instead of swimming confidently. Sarah found herself in this very real and uncomfortable place right around midterms.

    “I’m just not good at science! I don’t get it! I can’t do it! This is stupid,” she wailed, convinced that difficulty equated to impossibility.

    Rolled eyes and missed assignments are to be expected when a student feels out of her depth. Dismissing schoolwork as impossible or impractical or irrelevant is a defense mechanism; devaluing schoolwork is a natural way of coping with struggle.

    Teachers are not often privy to this exact moment when a student sits balanced on the precipice between giving up and struggling onwards. In Sarah’s case, the need for intervention was clear. She began a schedule of extra help after school, was allowed revised and attainable deadlines for missed work, and received constant feedback via e-mail when she got stuck at home. Encouraging words and pep talks at school filled in the gaps.

    Fast forward a few weeks, and Sarah was slowly digging out of the hole she put herself in. Acknowledgement of her hard work, her persistence, and her refusal to give up became the theme of every interaction.

    And, finally, the golden words: “Yeah, I think I’m starting to figure out this high school thing, and thanks for staying and helping me,” she said after school near the end of the semester. “When I just sit down and think about it, I get it.”

    Add the heavy sigh and slight eye roll that must always accompany sincerity when you’re 15, and you have a Hollywood-style perfect teaching moment.

    Teachers exert incredible power. In an instant, a student’s self-worth can be destroyed; a casual comment or thoughtless jibe stunts what might otherwise have been a moment to reconcile a misconception or unveil an unnoticed contribution made to the group. Teachers must interact with intention to prevent students from reverting to negativity and to highlight the very real contributions each and every student brings to the classroom.

    I won’t always be there at the exact moment a student tips precariously toward the path of least resistance, the path that leads to mediocrity and settling for something less than they are capable of. Every interaction with a student offers a choice. Do I focus on the minutiae of the day, the exasperation I feel at their lack of motivation or inattention to detail? Or do I choose to compliment their insightful question or their engagement with the real practices of science when data doesn’t nicely fit their model? Do I celebrate how they wanted to collect more data just to see, and the unique way their group represented that data, or do I, for the 500th time, ask them to sit down and use their inside voices? That choice must be intentional.

    Allowing students to struggle, to grapple, to debate, to ultimately create understanding is a given. However, student struggle will remain futile and ineffective without acknowledgement, feedback, and celebration of each success along the way. 


Megan Fretz is a high school science teacher in Thornton, CO. She is a 2011 Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellow, a member of the 2014 AP Biology Leadership Academy Cohort, a self-professed ed-tech junkie and lover of all things cycling and outdoor-related. 

Struggle

A lab team called me over as students got to work on their brine shrimp investigation for the day. “We wanted to know if there was a way to filter out our brine shrimp.”

    “Can you be more specific?”

    “Well, we want them all to be eggs, but this liquid culture is mixed with adults and eggs. So we thought if we had some kind of funnel or filter, we might be able to sort out the adults from the eggs and then just have the eggs.”

    “It sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure we have the materials you would need to make a funnel that precise.”

    “Can we try?”

    For the 15 minutes or so, I watched with interest as the lab team tried to make a funnel for their brine shrimp culture. First, they tried just making a paper cone with a small opening. This was quickly rejected; it absorbed droplets of water, making it useless. There were a few sheets of transparency lying around the lab area from a previous experiment. The students asked me for a thumbtack because they figured that opening would be large enough for brine shrimp eggs but too small for adult brine shrimp. They punched a hole in the transparency and folded it into a cone shape. At this point, another lab team flagged me down.

    “We have a problem,” one of the students announced as I approached.

    “What is your problem?”

    “We were testing the effect of light on the brine shrimp,” explained the student, gesturing toward the lamp they had focused on one of their small jars of brine shrimp. “But this jar got really hot. So now it’s light and temperature.”

    “OK. So what are you going to do about it?”

    “We don’t know,” she admitted.

    “Well, you have a couple of options, right? What are your options?”

    “We could test something besides light.”

    “You could. What else could you do if you still wanted to test light?”

    “We need a way to keep temperature the same. Light without heat,” added one of her classmates.

    “I agree. So what can you do?”

    “Wait … Could we use a water bath like a heat sink?”

    “Sure. Can you explain to your lab team why that might work?”

    “Water has a high specific heat, so it would absorb some of the heat from the lamp but still let the light through.”

    “I still think we need a thermometer with the set up, just to monitor,” replied her teammate. I left them to it and went to check on the filter group.

    “How did the transparency work out?” I asked, genuinely curious.

    “It didn’t.” The student held up the makeshift funnel. “The opening is so small that it doesn’t break the water tension.” She demonstrated for me: When water from a pipette was squirted into the funnel, none dripped through the hole. “We’ve given up on the funnel idea.”

    Across the room, two lab teams were consulting each other about how much yeast to add to their brine shrimp jars. “No, 0.2 grams is way too much,” said one student, holding up a jar that was opaque with yeast. “We’re trying again with 0.1 grams.”

    “Well, we’re just going to wait to see what happens,” replied a student from the other group. “Let us know if it works.”

    And so for about six weeks, my AP Bio students spent 30 minutes a day in the lab working with their brine shrimp experiments. The experience was not one that I had really planned for them. Initially, I wanted them to engage with some quantitative ecological data collection. While reading “The American Biology Teacher,” I encountered a description of an aquatic ecosystem modeling lab that allowed students to count populations of algae and brine shrimp. I worked to set it up in my classroom lab, but I ran into many unexpected obstacles while trying to create protocols for my students. First, the microscopes available to my students were not high quality enough to make the algae counting easy. I printed out millimeter grids on transparency in order to facilitate cell counts. This helped. Culturing the algae also presented me with some difficulty. The only thing that went well, in fact, was the hatching of the brine shrimp. We were already a week past when I had intended to begin their lab work when I finally realized I needed to either abandon the original lab design or abandon the whole ecology data collection experience. I scrapped the original lab design and instead just asked my students to generate some questions about brine shrimp and algae. They were then set loose in the lab to try to answer their selected question.

    Throughout the experience, I was not very helpful to them. Most of them learned much more about brine shrimp in a week than I had known about brine shrimp. Some of the problems they ran into I anticipated - like the temperature being a confounding variable when investigating light - but other problems surprised me, like the difficulty of optimizing a yeast solution for our small brine shrimp colonies. They were forced to talk to each other, because they were all dealing with high mortality rates in their colonies. They shared sampling methodology with one another and asked impressively specific methodological questions of one another.

    At the end of six weeks, they voted as a class to process the experience in a Socratic seminar. I asked them, bluntly, “Should next year’s AP Bio students do this experiment?”

    “I don’t think we got particularly good data, and I don’t think we really answered our experimental question,” said one of my students. “But it taught us to work through our errors and precisely design an experiment.”

    “We were doing real science. It was worthwhile,” added another student.


Brittany Franckowiak is a science teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, MD. She is a University of Pittsburgh alumna, a 2011 Knowles Science Teaching Fellow, and a member of Cohort 2 of the BSCS AP Biology Leadership Academy. Brittany spends her breaks from teaching exploring national parks, experimenting in her kitchen, running slowly, and visiting her family in Michigan.

Failure is how we learn

“Failure is how we learn.” These are words that, until this year, I was not willing to say out loud to students or parents.

   I wasn’t comfortable with telling students that they would indeed, at times in my class, fail - and that the failure would be spectacular and that it would hurt. I wasn’t comfortable with how students failing might reflect upon my practice as a teacher. I’d always been told I was an outstanding teacher - complete with hardware to prove it! - and in my mind, student failure equated to teacher failure as well. So I did what I could to make sure that kids Did. Not. Fail. I adjusted grades - or, as students like to say “curved grades” - I required tutoring, I gave extra credit. But I also wrung my hands, gnashed my teeth, and cursed an awful awful lot when none of these things improved student learning.  

   Then in 2009, legislation was passed in my state regarding allowing students to redo failing work for mastery. By law, students are allowed “reasonable opportunity” to redo any assignment to raise their grade in order to demonstrate mastery - a grade of 70, as defined by the State of Texas.

   Allowing students to redo failing work for mastery sounds like a great idea - in theory. If you aren't the teacher who has to regrade the work, recreate assessments, and redesign instruction, all while differentiating learning experiences for each of the 155 students on your roster, it's a great idea ...

   Just like every other educational reform devised by non-practitioners who have no concept of what it truly is to teach students, beyond what they know from being experts on education because they went to school once.  

   I firmly believe that laws like this actually do more to hurt students than they do to help them. I believe that laws like this disable students more than they enable them. ”But why?” you might ask.  

   When we constantly cushion the intellectual blows students sometimes suffer as a result of an increase in academic rigor, what are we really teaching them?  

   We are teaching them that there will always be a safety net. Real life teaches us that this is not always the case and that, when the safety net is absent, we must learn quickly to think fast on our feet so that we at least stand a chance to land on them.  

   We are enabling them to be intellectually dependent on us, robbing them of the capacity to think for themselves.

   We are stealing their ability to develop into problem solvers and critical thinkers who can think quickly and adeptly to figure out which step to take next to get to their goal.  

   If we never failed at anything, would we really ever learn how to do anything at all? Would we ever learn what true success looked and felt like?

   The worst part of this law is that the redone work is tied to a grade. Furthermore, the law does not define what the opportunity to redo should look like - I suppose this is the State of Texas' way of giving districts back the local control they once had. (But that is another soapbox for another day.) Without clearly defined boundaries for what constitutes being able to redo work, there is no guarantee that students actually relearn the content they failed to master the first time.

   When students know they have the chance to redo work without a real opportunity to relearn, the redone work is seen as a way to improve the grade rather than to master content.

   It also begs the question: How do we set kids up for learning in such a way that failure is not seen as a negative thing but rather a learning experience? And how do we get parents to understand that it is OK for their kids to fail every once in a while, that they aren’t perfect and should not expect to be?

   It is incumbent upon the teacher as instructional designer to create a learning environment in which failure is seen as a necessary accessory to the learning process. Teachers also need to encourage and build resilience in students during the learning process. Too often students give up when they don't get the answer they are looking for or don't complete some task correctly the first time. Teachers should share their own experiences with failure so that students see that failure does not define an individual: how that individual reacts to failure does.

   It is also important for teachers to ask students these questions: If we never failed at anything, would we really ever learn how to do anything at all? Would we ever learn what true success looked and felt like?  


Lee Ferguson is a veteran biology educator hailing from the state of Texas, where she teaches AP Biology at the state's largest high school, Allen High School.  A graduate of both Southwestern University and the University of Texas at Dallas, Lee also serves as a science education consultant for Metroplex area teachers and is an instructor for the Rice EdX AP Biology prep course. When she's not teaching, you can find her out and about with her trusty Nikon or volunteering with her Rotary Club.

Letting kids struggle in class

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” - Albert Camus 1

Tears are not uncommon in Room B361 — they’re not an everyday occurrence, but they happen, and they usually happen when a child’s efforts in a high-level class bump up against a grade unacceptable to a demanding parent.

    It’s never fun, and is usually uncomfortable, but often comes down to this: Why is the student taking the course? For many of my seniors, it’s the first time they come face to face with the answer. There is no joy in the struggle, so there can be no joy in the course. Or maybe there is no joy in the course, so there can be no joy in the struggle. It all gets down to the same thing.

    While the student is answering their question, here is ours: Why are we teaching the course?

    Public schooling is an odd game — progress toward long-term laudatory goals is marked by tests and marking periods, GPAs, and class ranks. The grades along the way become the point for many of our ‘better’ students, and their scores on standardized test become the point for many of their teachers.

    Struggling hurts.

    If we have to struggle to do something, we’re less likely to do it unless we see some sort of gain at the end. Our schools focus on the promise of college and careers for those who work harder, the threat of poverty or so-called ‘demeaning’ jobs for those who do not. A peek into the decade ahead is poor motivation for a student just trying to get through the day.

    Struggling takes time.

    Our culture worships efficiency and production. If the short-term goal of schooling is high scores, then it becomes the goal of teachers and administrators to minimize the struggle to get there. CliffsNotes, calculators, and algorithms grease the race to the top. They do little for learning, but that’s not why these ‘learning aids’ exist.

    I am not allowed to ban the use of calculators in class, no matter how simple the problem, even when the point of the problem involves developing a number sense, because, I am told, arithmetic is something children no longer need to grasp - calculators are cheap and ubiquitous.

    Struggling through numbers takes time. Struggling through developing a hypothesis takes time. Struggling through figuring out how to set up a workable experiment takes time. The bell rings, it’s time to clean up, and the struggle ends.

    Ultimately, struggling through new problems and new ideas is as inefficient as the work of pre-Industrial Age humans. Mastery of anything worthwhile is too inefficient for the current classroom model, where arbitrary subjects are divided into arbitrary units of time.

    I walk through my lab, my hands behind my back, answering questions with questions, pushing children to push themselves. Then I look at the clock, and my struggle falls apart.   

    I know kids are willing to struggle — I have heard the slap of a skateboard landing wheels-up in the November dark time after time after time before a child successfully completes their first kickflip. I listen to young skaters coach and ridicule each other, but mostly I hear the laughter ringing through the street, joyful not derisory, as they compare each others’ abrasions earned in the struggle to learn the next trick.

    Struggle becomes play. We are all Sisyphus.

    When what happens inside my cinder-block walls that matters, the kids <i>truly</i> struggle, wrestling with an idea like the writhing python it is, not wanting to leave class until the snake has been pinned down to the mat.

    Struggle becomes play. We are all Sisyphus.

    Our biggest problem in the classroom is not our inability to let go and let kids struggle — it’s leading them to the ideas that are worth struggling over.

   Struggle becomes play. We are all Sisyphus.


1. Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. New York: Knopf.

Michael Doyle was very briefly a longshoreman, briefly a lab tech in a booze plant, more recently a pediatrician in the projects, and now teaches young adults about the science of life in his hometown high school. When not knee-deep in pedagogy, he is ankle-deep in mudflats, raking quahogs. For more of his nonsense, visit his blog Science teacher.