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Letting kids struggle in school: When is it too much of a useful thing?

In  this 2011 photo, students and teachers of the School Without Walls utilize their new and improved library. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/ The Washington Post)

This is the first in a series of essays I will publish in the coming weeks that emanated from a project in which more than 20 biology teachers around the country wrote around the prompt: “What is the value of letting students struggle in class?”  The effort was an attempt to give teachers an avenue to discuss teaching and how they deal with the struggles of their students. You can read about the project in the previous post.  This essay was written by Sydney Bergman, a biology teacher and Science Department chair at School Without Walls Senior High School in Washington D.C.

By Sydney Bergman

An assistant principal dropped into my biology class one day. She was one of the few administrators who regularly came into the room just to see what was going on; my class is in a windowless basement, though the lab itself is well lit, the walls a peaceful green. She may have been there to escape the front office din, or just to sit in one of the comfortable (if ill-advised in a lab setting) rolling chairs and see what students were learning that day.

Students were reading an excerpt from “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” the section on microscopy and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, whom I charitably described to them as a “genius wackadoo.” In the section, Leeuwenhoek puts everything he can gets his hands on – blood, semen, excrement, and gunpowder – under his series of lenses to see the invisible world of the very, very small. I use the excerpt for several reasons: One, anything involving blood and explosions is likely to pique teenage interest. Two, Leeuwenhoek’s humble beginnings as a linen draper and his illiteracy in Latin make for interesting discussion as to what constitutes a scientist. Three, the reading is one of many ways in which I reinforce that we live, for all intents and purposes, on a microbial world, that we are Gulliver-like interlopers on a planet of the incredibly minute.

Bill Bryson’s fluid, if somewhat arch, writing is students’ main impediment to understanding all of these things. The administrator observed one student in particular who was clearly struggling with the vocabulary. The student in question was one whose name I often said followed by a long exhale, not because they didn’t have the capacity to understand the material, but because they didn’t seem to ken the requirement of doing work outside class to shore-up in-class understanding.

The administrator, a former English teacher, pulled me aside after class to discuss reading strategies. Students had guided questions for the reading, but I didn’t do the level of context setting I probably should have. That said, we disagreed on a key point: whether to provide a list of vocabulary words, defined, or provide definitions when asked, as she suggested; or to point out the class set of dictionaries (and on their Internet-enabled) for specific definitions, as I suggested.

Her position was that, for struggling students, scaffolding something like vocabulary makes them more likely to tackle complex texts because they have to do less groundwork to obtain meaning and are therefore more likely to spend time looking for deeper connections in the text rather than looking words up. My position was that acquiring vocabulary is more meaningful when students do it themselves in context with what they’re reading and that learning to use resources available to them is more important than any particular vocabulary word.

Further complicating matters is the fact that I teach at a selective school, and the administrator has previously worked at a comprehensive school. There comes a point where a student who won’t walk across the room to get a dictionary perhaps won’t do the required work at a school that requires all sophomores to take an AP class. Her view, which I also understand, is that the students I have are the students I have, so that I have an obligation to help whoever is in class, regardless of whether they remain at the school.

This incident occurred several years ago, and I’m still torn on which strategy to use. I don’t teach vocabulary as a separate part of a lesson; I remember, from my own education and with lingering horror, having to write out definitions on flashcards, largely for words I knew the meaning of already or could understand through context. (Beyond that, my handwriting is such that having to produce hand-written anything was an exercise in frustration.) But perhaps my perspective is too colored by my own experience – I also know that vocabulary acquisition through reading is difficult for students who are less comfortable with identifying unknown words.

All of this speaks to the larger question of what good struggle looks like. As teachers, we’re taught to assess students’ prior knowledge and skill level; to keep activities in their zone of proximal development; to, as a colleague puts it, find out where they are and bring them to where they need to be. One of the difficulties in doing this is discerning a student who is challenged by the material – the frustration that comes from not knowing, but working to know – from one for whom the material is completely inaccessible.

There’s also the matter of modeling resilience and persistence. Some students give up easily even if the material is accessible to them; others persevere far beyond what I would consider a reasonable frustration point. We want students to be able to engage with novel material, to be able to tackle new situations with the confidence that they might not know, but they will know.

I find that students more accustomed to struggling do well with the revised AP Biology course, as well as in other academic settings that emphasize methods of knowing over rote memorization. They have the skill set and mental wherewithal to tackle material they know to be challenging. Such perseverance, however, can be exhausting, and it’s difficult to demand that level of mental energy from students for 6.5 hours a day (plus homework) and not expect some students to simply be too tired to try their hardest at everything. Nurturing perseverance needs to come with an understanding of the limits of such perseverance.

I find a lot of discussion of ‘grit’ – the idea that perseverance and self-control are crucial predictors of success – to be dismissive of other outside factors that often disproportionately affect certain populations. There are real and significant barriers to success along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. The idea that these barriers can be overcome with simple perseverance – rather than by dismantling the power structures that maintain these barriers – is, to my mind, deeply troubling.

Yet, within a classroom setting, fostering perseverance makes practical sense, even if it’s not the sole predictor of student success. Students who are less likely to give up are more likely to learn. Students who will walk across the room to get a dictionary rather than staring at an unknown word are more likely to be able to do so outside a classroom. But there are some students for whom this task might seem insurmountable, and others who do not require it. The key is, then, discerning the difference.

What, then, do I do when students don’t understand a text in class? After exhausting context clues and asking their neighbors, they get up, walk to the pile of dictionaries in the room, and look up the term. If it’s not already among the terms I give them in advance, defined.