I’ve recently been reading To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension, a wonderful book by Ellin Keene, co-author of Mosaic of Thought (see book link at right). I’m taking longer to read this book than I do with most because the ideas are so profound that I need to spend time thinking about each chapter and reflecting on it before I move on. One chapter that resonates with me is “To Savor the Struggle.” Ellin suggests that one of the greatest gifts we can give students is the experience of having to struggle to understand an idea. She offers several examples of great writers and artists who have conquered adversity and who have, in fact, been empowered by those very struggles. She suggests that by encouraging children to tackle intellectual challenges, we show them that they can do more and become more than they ever dreamed possible. Wow!
Reading her words brings to mind an experience I observed in my classroom at the end of the year. I had just returned from attending a Marcy Cook math workshop and was introducing some of the center activities I had picked up during the session. The activities involved using “number tiles” to solve problems in creative ways. Marcy’s activities are like brainteasers because the solutions require some work and aren’t readily apparent. I thought the students would enjoy them, so I was shocked when I heard several children whining (yes, whining!) that the activity was too hard! I realized that over the years I have learned to break every math lesson down into bite-sized pieces and students don’t even have to “chew” to get the lesson!
Using Mastery Learning makes math easy, but now the question is, “Should I be making it that easy?” Is it important for kids to struggle? I have to say that I agree with Ellin Keene and I really do see the value in struggle. Not struggling to the point of frustration and giving up, but the kind of struggle that’s encouraged and supported as a way for students to stretch their boundaries and surpass their limitations. How can students learn to be persistent in the face of difficulties if we never allow them to struggle? I have found that sometimes the brightest children are the ones who cave in at the first sign of difficulty. In the classroom, everything has been easy and nothing has ever been a struggle, so when they do encounter difficulties they want to give up. The key is to support them through those struggles so they emerge with an even greater sense of their own strength. We have to let them know that even though the task is challenging, we know they can handle it if they are willing to think creatively and persist in their efforts.
So where does that leave me as I approach a new school year? Will I give up using Mastery Learning in math? No way! I wouldn’t be doing my job as a teacher if I let students struggle through every math concept without support, and Mastery Learning gives me the tools to differentiate instruction. However, I realize that I also need to provide plenty of opportunities for problem solving, especially problems that are challenging and require creative thinking. I need to let kids know that I believe in their ability to figure things out on their own instead of always jumping in to bail them out when they get stuck.
I think the value of struggle would be a great topic to address in my morning meetings with students. Perhaps if kids get comfortable sharing their own struggles, other students will learn view difficulties in a new way. I will definitely start off the year with lots of brainteasers and fun types of challenges to encourage creative thinking. Any other ideas or thoughts about savoring the struggle? Add your voice to mine!