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.