Monday, May 2, 2016

It's OK To Struggle When You're Learning Something New

       Years ago I knew of a little boy whom I never heard speak a word until he was nearly ten years old.  It wasn't that he couldn't talk; his disability was more serious than that...he was born with two older siblings and a mother who wanted the world to view her son as "Always Correct".  To ensure this perception, whenever anyone asked him a question, she would answer the question.  The older siblings did the same thing--but not for the same reason.  They just thought of him as a child that didn't talk much.  Clearly my nephew got the message (at a very early age) that other people would do things for him--even speak for him.  There was no reason to speak or even to think very much.  Of course, his mother loved him and she wanted the best for her son.  She didn't like to see him struggle to learn how to do things and didn't like to see him cry, so she did just about everything for him.

       Sometimes teachers are like this mother.  We want the best for our students and we want them to succeed.  So, sometimes we give them hints to nudge them toward the right answer; we compliment them for minor things (like repeating what we say); and we never want to suggest that they might be wrong about something.  Teachers are caring people and it makes sense that we want the best for our students.  But allowing students to have a false sense of achievement is not a caring thing to do.  And if this sort of (false) encouragement continues for a whole school year, and then the next year, and then the next year, we end up teaching students that learning is just memorizing stuff and repeating what the teacher says, and following directions.  That's not learning.

       Learning anything that is worth learning requires a certain amount of struggle.  No one expects you to learn something complex the first time you hear it.  You have to think about it, and practice with it, and make some mistakes, and learn from the mistakes, and make more mistakes, and then (maybe) you can claim success at learning.  It's OK to struggle and it's OK to allow your children to struggle.  We want students to know that learning is full of challenges and effort is required to overcome these challenges.  We want students to believe that they can do anything if they have the will to work at it until it is done.

       This is a difficult message for most parents to hear.  A lot of people have a fixed mindset about their children's abilities.  This means that they believe that their children are capable of doing some things and incapable of doing other things--and no amount of effort will change that.  This mindset leads to statements such as, "It's OK if you're not good at math because I was never good at math and some people just can't do math."  (Feel free to substitute other words in place of the word "math".)  This is a terrible message for students.  Instead, the message should be that hard work pays off and struggle leads to learning.




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