What does it mean to struggle?
As my eyes scanned up the left column of page 1164 in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.)1, they first landed on “struggle for existence.” According to Merriam-Webster’s, struggle for existence means, in part, “the automatic competition (as for food, space, or light) of members of a natural population that tends to eliminate less efficient individuals … ” How appropriate. I teach biology, so why not apply evolutionary theory to the classroom?
This survival-of-the-fittest philosophy was exactly the approach by a science teacher colleague at one of my former schools. I expect that there is likely one or more of these militant teachers at each of our schools. “We will always need people to work at McDonald’s,” she argued in department meetings when challenged about her take-no-prisoners approach to teaching chemistry. Indeed, even now I am reminded of “In Defense of Elitism” by William Henry2, which I read in grad school while working on my masters in science education. I vividly recall the ongoing moral and logical battle in my head as I read Henry’s surprisingly persuasive argument against egalitarianism. ”I am not supposed to agree with this,” I thought as I tried to imagine my ideal classroom where all students had the opportunity to succeed and where all students were happy and motivated and hard working … and successful. But how else can we find the future economists, doctors, inventors, scientists, artists, and teachers if we don’t present our students with an environment that sifts out those who cannot survive the struggle?
Struggle. What does it mean to struggle? Back to Merriam-Webster’s.
Just above struggle is strudel, “a pastry made from a thin sheet of dough rolled up with filling and baked.” I’ve never made strudel, but I can follow a recipe. Even as a biology teacher all I need are the right ingredients - yay, Next Generation Science Standards! - in the right proportions - yay, bio team and district biology curriculum! - and some sweet filling - yay, fun lab activities and HHMI short films! - and everyone learns the science of biology!
Oh, if teaching were only as simple as making strudel.
“I imagine it’s pretty hard to make good strudel,” my language-arts-teacher wife Sarah called back as she walked out of our home office after reading the first half of my unfinished essay.
“It can’t be as hard as good teaching,” I replied.
“Nothing is as hard as teaching,” she said.
Even if teaching were as simple as following a recipe for strudel, many schools don’t have access to all the ingredients, let alone the highest quality ingredients. Perhaps enough of the ingredients are there to get by but not all the tools. No rolling pin. Not enough mixing bowls, or they’re too small. And, even if the oven is functional, there may not be enough time for all the ingredients to interact and combine into that final product that is so wonderful and unique that it can never again be separated into its original ingredients. This is the student success story I am after.
Struggle. Merriam-Webster’s has two definitions. The first is that to struggle is “to make strenuous or violent efforts against opposition.”
Wait. Should my students “make strenuous or violent efforts against opposition” in my classroom? What is opposing my students in my classroom? Is it the language of biology that is pushing back at them? Is it the complexity of cell signaling, or a muscle contraction, or a food web, or a biogeochemical cycle? Is it their ADHD, the fact that they have an IEP or a 504, or something else not even related to school? What if it’s me? Am I the opposition? I am supposed to make my courses rigorous, aren’t I? Indeed, rigor has been quite the buzzword in education for some time now. My goal in my classroom should be rigor, and if that causes my students to struggle, well then, rigor is working.
However, in the popular blog “The Paper Graders,” writer and teacher Sarah Zerwin argues that, as I’ve illustrated above with struggle, we have a similar problem with the concept of rigor. In one post3, Zerwin reveals that the meaning of rigor includes “rigidly severe and harsh:”
“There should be absolutely nothing about learning that is rigidly severe or harsh – except for our efforts to protect student learning spaces from all things that seek to make them rigorous according to the definition above,” she explains. “I think what we mean when we say ‘rigorous’ is a whole collection of concepts. To define that work for my students, I present them a list: thorough, all-out, assiduous, careful, complete, comprehensive, conscientious, detailed, in-depth, intensive, meticulous, scrupulous, sweeping, whole-hog.”
So perhaps “violent efforts against opposition” isn’t the right interpretation of struggle.
Merriam-Webster’s second definition for struggle is “to proceed with difficulty or with great effort.” Ah, yes, now we are closer. This interpretation describes many of my students. Many of my students find the science of biology difficult, and many do proceed “with great effort.” Still, a few appear to proceed through my classes with ease, and a few don’t proceed at all: They give up. How can I facilitate that great effort for every student? How about constantly reminding my students how smart and capable they are?
In their February 2012 “New York Times” opinion piece, “Building Self-Control, the American Way,” authors and neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang argue that we shouldn’t say to children, “You’re so smart!” when they accomplish a difficult task. Instead we should say, “Wow, you kept working on that math problem until you got it right!” This, Aamodt and Wang suggest, “carries a clear message about the desired behavior. Communicating high but achievable expectations confers tools for real success.4”
OK, it’s starting to come together for me now. Yes, we should let kids struggle in our classrooms. But we must make it crystal clear what we mean by struggle. Our students must embrace that, for many of them, the work required to understand the concepts and connections will be difficult and may require great effort in the form of time, reassessments, and rewrites. Teachers are also not the opposition. We will do our best to give our students the ingredients, the tools, and the time so they can proceed to learning and success — and good strudel — even if great effort is required.
1. Struggle for Existence. (1998). Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (p.1164, 10th ed., Vol. 01)↩
2. Henry, W. A. (1994). In Defense of Elitism (p. 45). New York: Doubleday.↩
3. Zerwin, Sarah. (2014, November 30). One Week Later: What's Resonating After #NCTE14 [blog post]. Retrieved from http://thepapergraders.org ↩
4. Aamodt, Sandra, and Sam Wang. 2012. “Building Self Control, the American Way.” New York Times, 19 February 2012, p. SR5. ↩
Paul Strode is a biology teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, CO. Except for five years completing a doctorate in ecology and evolution at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Strode has been teaching high school science since 1991. Strode has a master’s in science education from the University of Washington (Seattle), has authored several journal papers on the effects of climate change on bird migration ecology, and coauthored the book, “Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails)” with Matt Young.Paul Strode also blogs as Mr. Dr. Science Teacher.