As students readjust to school after two years of pandemic learning, many are striving to rebuild their academic confidence. Some educators believe this is a crucial moment for teachers and parents to keep their distance when learning becomes difficult, and to be explicit about the fact that the challenges students may be facing can offer great rewards.
How often do you struggle with challenging school work? Do you get frustrated or overwhelmed? Or do you embrace the opportunity to deepen your learning?
In “Learning the Right Way to Struggle,” Jenny Anderson writes about some common educational strategies that lean into the idea that, in the classroom, challenges are something to embrace:
When Hunter, 6, started first grade last autumn, he struggled to match letter sounds with the shape of letters on paper. He found writing letters hard and writing words even harder. “It felt bad,” he said recently.
But Hunter also knows how to articulate what is happening when things get frustrating. “Your brain grows at the bottom,” he said. It’s a phrase that refers to the bottom of the learning pit, an imaginary place where students in Hunter’s class in Illinois have been taught to go when something they are learning gets difficult. Hunter also knows what he needs to get out of the pit — hard work, his friends, his teacher — and what it feels like when he climbs up and out on the other side (“excited”).
The learning pit as a metaphor is one of several common educational strategies that lean into the idea that struggle is something to be embraced. It was conceived in the early 2000s by James Nottingham when he was a teacher in a former mining town in Northern England. He saw that his students, many of whom were low income and lived in communities with high unemployment, avoided leaving their comfort zones. He wanted to encourage his students to get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.
At a moment when students are reeling from two years of pandemic learning and isolation from their peers, the idea of intentionally making young people uncomfortable may seem misguided. But many Educators and learning scientists say that now, as students look to rebuild academic confidence, is a crucial moment for teachers and parents to step back when learning gets hard, and to be explicit that the challenge offers rewards.
“The answer isn’t taking away the challenge, it’s giving more tools to deal with the challenge,” said Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and an expert on constructive learning mind-sets. Instead of saying “kids are too fragile” and refraining from offering difficult tasks, Dr. Dweck said, using frameworks like the learning pit can help children visualize ways to push through by asking for help and stepping up the effort.
“It becomes a way of articulating what might in the past have been humiliating and uncomfortable and discouraging,” Dr. Dweck said.
Students, read the entire articlethen tell us:
In general, how often do you struggle with school work? Has it felt more burdensome in the last couple of years? What subjects do you find the most difficult? How do you respond when faced with challenging assignments?
Is it easy for you to admit that you don’t understand something? How willing are you to ask for help? Do you wish you were better at either at asking for help, or having the confidence to try to solve problems on your own?
Share a specific time when you felt challenged or disheartened while trying to learn something new. What emotions and physical sensations did you experience? How did you get through it? How did you feel once the knowledge “clicked,” if it ever did?
What tools — for example, picturing a challenge as a “learning pit” — do you use when you encounter difficult work? How do they help?
As the article explains, some researchers believe that students learn new concepts knowledge more fully, and retain the longer, when they engage in “productive failure” — grappling with a problem before getting instruction on exactly how to handle it. Do you believe failure can be an instrumental part of learning? Has it been true in your experience?
John Hattie, a researcher who spent 15 years studying the things that influence learning, said that one key factor is striving for a challenge, and not “just doing your best.” Do you agree? Should people constantly push themselves beyond their limits to be better, even if it likely means pain, discomfort or defeat? Why or why not?
Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.
Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.