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.