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.