The Struggle of Letting Them Struggle

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Today I was teaching an honors level class how to add and subtract rational expressions.  These are the students that have pushed themselves to take Algebra 2 over the summer to advance their potential opportunities as they become upperclassmen.  We’re talking serious students.

To begin the unit, I modeled my teaching after a Dan Meyer inspired idea and, although, not the most exciting thing, it helped students gain a little buy-in.  The previous day we had actually looked at adding fractions, discussed the similarities and differences of adding rational numbers and made significant progress.  So I thought.

We started today by checking over the homework and there were a lot of questions.  THERE SHOULD BE  A LOT OF QUESTIONS.  This is hard stuff and I was fortunate to have curious students, anxious to learn the content at a deep level and ask about their confusion.  If there aren’t any questions after the first day please don’t assume they’re good.  In fact, I could sense the frustration and kept telling them:

This is hard, but that’s why it’s better than many of the other things we look at.  It’s a chance for you to struggle and flex your creativity in solving problems.  Keep trying, keep failing, and keep asking questions.

Instead of moving on, I asked them if they would prefer to practice this a little more; they said yes.  I started by giving them a more simple problem.  Then, I increased the level of difficulty, and finally, gave them this harder problem:

__5__  +         4         –      2  
x(x+2)         -x – 2             5x

The students were able to handle the first two problems fairly well with asking only a few questions.  The final question pushed many of them outside of their comfort zone.  I let the students begin on their own, then as they began to ask questions I went in to help clarify some confusion.  But….it was rough.  I’m talking seriously rough.  Like, why would you do that, how can you even think that after the other things we looked at rough.

What I found myself doing as they asked me questions was becoming overwhelmed.  Student after student asked me questions, and I was having the most difficult time thinking about how to steer them in the right direction without showing them exactly how to do it.  At one point, I told a student:

Just hang on for a minute; I’m going to go through it with the class in a little bit.

It was at this point I realized the struggle of letting kids struggle.  Learning is messy, but when we have a quality problem of difficulty and students ambitious enough to struggle through it, we must ask ourselves whether we are ambitious enough to help them through the struggle rather than re-gain control and show them how it is done step-by-step.

As teachers, we need ways to encourage kids to take risks, while demonstrating that it is okay to do so.  We need to allow kids to make mistakes and fail, but we cannot be there to catch them as soon as it gets a little difficult.  Instead, we need to foster a classroom where creativity is encouraged and wrong answers are explored and shared.  In that moment, I wonder how the learning in my classroom would have changed if I grabbed three students’ notebooks, threw them under the document camera and, as a class, we discussed the math (wrong or right) that the student displayed.

I, like many other teachers, get caught up on the right answer rather than the process of getting there.  Because of this, I get frustrated when students are nowhere near the correct answer.  Instead, we need to embrace the messy process and the learning that is held within.  Maybe the student that struggled and got a problem wrong three times actually ends up learning and understanding the process at a deeper level than the student that got it right on the first attempt.

I ask you to be careful next time you get frustrated because no one in your class is finding the right answer.  Use the opportunity to talk about mistakes and continue to give them chances to flex their creativity and make mistakes.  It’s a struggle.