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.