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.