Normalizing Struggle

There’s an excellent, recent idea on KQED.com about teaching our students that failures and the struggle to succeed are helpful for our students and may help their intelligence grow (See also this KQED article on how students’ grades improved after they were told that intelligence is not fixed but can grow).  The idea has been researched by Dr. Manu Kapur and it has two key elements: (1) give students the time and space necessary for them to work on difficult problems, and (2) praise the process of working through the problem.  We all know that students sometimes rush through things and this often results in mistakes, so this approach gives us more ways to encourage students to slow down, take their time, and hopefully get better results.

KQED’s article includes this video of Maricela Montoy-Wilson, a second grade teacher, demonstrating these ideas:

Here are some things I like or find tempting to try from this video:

  • Real world application: Students will face problems in the real world and will need to know how to fix it.  This idea teaches students how to solve their problems and gives them strategies for that.  If they know this is one of the benefits, it may also give them more motivation.
  • Communication and Metacognition: Students explain how they will approach each problem to each other, and other students ask them for clarification.  This request for clarification forces the students to improve their understanding of the techniques for and ideas of addition and subtraction.  Additionally, you can ask students to explain what they found challenging–this also lets you assess where your students are and how to better teach them.  You can help students with this metacognition by asking questions that help them reflect on the learning process, modeling good metacognition, and asking them what strategies are good to use.
  • “Justify.”  I liked this word.  It seemed to be a great improvement on my frequent questions: “Why did you translate X as Y?” or “How did you get that translation?” or “Explain your translation.” or “What do you mean by that interpretation?” or “What supports that interpretation?”  It seems a bit more specific and is actually getting at what I want my students to do in these situations.
  • “Scholars,” “Friends,” and “Mathematicians.” Montoy-Wilson used words that gave students status and didn’t demean them.  This may seem silly but it may also make students work harder to achieve an understanding of the material, or even just make them feel better about being in class.  We could try “Latinists” or “Historians” or also “scholars.”
  • Clear classroom procedures and expectations.  Students had specific hand motions for asking questions and saying “I agree.”  Some of the other procedures allowed Maricela to help single students while other groups worked independently.  Many of these procedures can and should be established early on in the term or year.
  • More communication skills. Montoy-Wilson emphasizes clarity and precision with what her students are saying.  This improves communication, models for students what to ask about (as they do in this video), and praises students for good behavior.
  • She encourages struggling students to slow down some and strategize better, as she said by saying “Oh my goodness, I see the wheels in your brain turning.”  Then she asks what strategies are best to use.
  • Challenging students. You can assign challenging work to your students, and they will be more willing and able to persevere.  In fact, this approach requires us to challenge students and can be good for all levels of students in the class. It teaches “grit.”
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