Should we let kids struggle in class? It all depends.

The question as proposed requires some clarification. Are we talking about all students regardless of situation (e.g. socioeconomic status, learning styles, or learning disabilities)? Before considering such a vast variety of learning theories and current practices, we must look at students in light of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs1. Where do students fall on the hierarchy? What struggle are you proposing to address in class? Do students feel safe? Are they well-fed? Do they have a place to live? Are the students in the proper emotional state such that learning is an option? For some of my students, the goal in class is just to feel safe, to be part of an accepting group of individuals, and therefore learning is not an option at this point. However, given that the majority of students would be in that ‘learning place’ higher up in the hierarchy, then let learning theories and practices rule.

    I am a baby boomer, a product of the post-sputnik education generation2. I remember the best of my high school teachers, Mr. Goto, and BSCS biology with all the cool labs3. I consciously modeled my own classroom after Mr. Goto, and also Mr. Wyner and his international relations class senior year, full of project-based learning. I was raring to go when I started teaching. There were state standards and criteria in the framework, but soon after I started teaching high school the state and federal governments came in with accountability and the rush to make sure students could regurgitate facts on the 60-question state test. We were firmly encouraged to ensure the students did well enough to meet Adequate Yearly Progress and to abandon the practices of the past, so that the school and district did not wind up on probation … surprisingly, because of this last year of testing, we are now on probation for the scores on our last AYP4. Frankly, I paid lip service to all that, closed my door, and continued with what I believed worked.

    Ironically now, it appears that we have gone back to the post-sputnik styles after a head-spinning decade of change and acronyms, Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and Response to Intervention (RtI), and being told that failure is not an option5 . We are also encouraged strongly to shift from teacher-focused (sage on the stage) learning to student-focused learning. And let’s not forget the pressures from college and parental expectations6. Lastly, bring on the Common Core state standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which aren’t so bad7.

    Personally, I teach in a wealthy district in California, the state with the largest average class size and which is ranked 26 in revenue per student8. Letting students struggle is a constant balancing act of personal philosophy, district and local administration policies, and parental involvement. I totally support the need for student-driven inquiry for labs and student freedom to choose topics within a prescribed assignment. I set extremely high standards and have high expectations of student performance in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading skills9.

   However, the vast majority of my teaching peers at my current assignment (going on 25 years) only give a student one chance at getting it right. I noticed very early in my career that the every-student-has-a-right-to-fail philosophy led down the road to disaster. No matter how I felt I explained the assignment, I rarely saw my vision realized. The parents and students were angry, school administration got involved, and some students eventually gave up. The few, the brilliant, did great; they must have intuitively shared my vision.

    Luckily, I had a fantastically intuitive progressive role model. She said to just give the students another chance, accept rewrites - a mulligan (if you don’t mind the golf analogy), a do-over. I dubbed this practice ‘defensive’ teaching. A good defense is a great offense to keep people out of my vision of curricular choices. Parent complaining, student complaining, and administration complaining all evaporated. And who knew (I started doing this 25 years ago) that this attitude was renamed “failure was not an option?” I didn’t need to aim at the middle and wind up settling downward with mediocrity, as I was told to do in some of my teacher-training classes. I just needed to build a scaffold of skills well and help students climb Bloom’s Taxonomy along with me10. I adopted the old adage that practice makes perfect - it works for coaches - and that it’s OK to let students struggle. It is freeing to be allowed to set high standards and expectations as long as the student can have a do-over until it is perfect.


1. Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Retrieved from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/regsys/maslow.html

2. Reflecting on Sputnik - Lappan 2. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.nas.edu/sputnik/lappan2.htm

3. BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) BSCS History. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.bscs.org/history

4. Ed-Data. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from https://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us/Pages/UnderstandingTheAYP.aspx

5. Design-Based Research Methods (DBR) | Learning Theories. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.learning-theories.com/design-based-research-methods.html; What is RTI? (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti; All Things PLC. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.allthingsplc.info/; Failure is not an option. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.publicagenda.org/files/FailureIsNotAnOption_PublicAgenda_2012.pdf

6. Parental Involvement and Student Achievement: A Meta-Analysis / Browse Our Publications / Publications & Resources / HFRP - Harvard Family Research Project. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.hfrp.org/publications-resources/browse-our-publications/parental-involvement-and-student-achievement-a-meta-analysis

7. Preparing America's students for success. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.corestandards.org/; Access the Standards by Topic. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://standards.nsta.org/AccessStandardsByTopic.aspx

8. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/NEA-Rankings-and-Estimates-2013-2014.pdf

9. Membership. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/aug12/vol54/num08/Support-Struggling-Students-with-Academic-Rigor.aspx

10. Bloom's Taxonomy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2014, from http://ww2.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm

Robin Groch is a teacher of 27 years, most recently at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, CA, teaching general biology, ninth grade accelerated biology with research, as well as AP Biology for 19 years. She has also taught seventh and eighth grade science as well as ninth grade physical and earth sciences. She retired at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.