Have you ever felt that you’re being stalked by an idea? It happened to me this week. I had planned to start a series of new posts that I’ve been incubating for some time, but the blogger muse had other plans. First, I was intrigued by Jason Arnold’s R² post suggesting that students may learn more when they have to do a little digging for the information to build a DNA model. On Monday of this week, Brian Coatney highlighted the benefits of reading difficult material. Finally, my inbox delivered the latest issue of Annie Murphy Paul’s The Brilliant Report, featuring “When to Let Learners Struggle.”
I think somebody’s trying to tell me something. I’ll admit that it’s painful for me when my students don’t do well. Some of the reasons for my discomfort are apparent. As a pediatrician-turned-anatomy-teacher, I’ve signed up for hitches in two different classic helping professions..and we helpers just love knowing that we’re helping. When patients get better or students learn, my work is done. Conversely, when students don’t achieve, I feel like I must be doing something wrong. Maybe they just need a little more help: a clearer explanation, a better study guide, a more creative lesson plan, more of something I haven’t figure out yet. Surely there’s a way for me to make the job of learning easier for them.
I do warn my students that A&P is a big, challenging subject, one that will ask them to learn a lot of new words and complex processes in a very short period of time. It’s almost like taking a foreign language class, and it can take over a motivated student’s life for the eight-week term. It takes real effort to do well. To illustrate the point, I’ll remove the top of one of the model skulls in my lab and pantomime spooning information into it, noting wistfully that I can’t, unfortunately, actually do that in real life. I also have a “magic wand” that I pull out when I want to be the “Knowledge Fairy,” bestowing instant and effortless knowledge on deserving students. But do I really wish that I could do either of these things?
Maybe not…make that “certainly not.” When my sons were growing up, I made it a practice not to do things for them that they could do themselves. They looked up words in the dictionary. (OK, so maybe I wasn’t always sure of the correct spelling myself.) They completed their own school work without help unless they were really and truly stuck. They learned to keep track of their own things and to manage their own schedules. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked in the long run. A study described in The Brilliant Report suggests why the hands-off approach may be effective:
“Kapur’s investigations find that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.”
Maybe it’s time I realized that my students can benefit from struggling, even when it makes them uncomfortable…and even when if makes me uncomfortable. In fact, maybe I need to build a little more struggling into the fabric of my classes intentionally. We here at pleasureinlearning recognize the importance of the “achievable challenge,” but maybe I’ve been so focused making learning “achievable” that I’ve neglected the “challenge” part of the formula.
Back in my pediatrician days, I was always dismayed by parents who blithely reassured their children that “the shot won’t hurt a bit.” My own policy was to say, “This will hurt a little, but not very much and not very long. You’re the kind of kid who can handle it.”
Learning may hurt a little bit, too, but I’m betting my students can handle it.