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What is the value of letting students struggle in class? Teachers answer.


This past fall, a group of more than 20 biology teachers around the country began an original project in which each would write an essay around the prompt: “What is the value of letting students struggle in class?” The result: more than 200 pages of essays written by teachers about teaching, all peer-reviewed by other teachers.

The fevered politics of school reform today often overshadow the real stuff of education: what teachers do every day to help students  and how the best of them work and think hard about effective ways of  teaching kids to learn — even by struggling. I was reminded of this when Sydney Bergman, a biology teacher and Science Department chair at School Without Walls Senior High School in Washington D.C., told me about this writing project.

I am going to publish a number of these essays in the coming weeks so you can hear the voices of teachers discussing teaching and how they approach their students’ struggles.

Here are the foreward and the introduction to the essays, the former written by Brad Williamson and the latter by David Knuffke. Williamson is a Kansas biology teacher who for more than 30 years has taught in small rural schools, large suburban high schools, community colleges and universities. He has also served in a number of leadership roles, including president of the National Association of Biology Teachers in 2002, and starting in 2006,  served on College Board committees doing the work of developing a new Advanced Placement Biology curriculum. Knuffke has taught AP biology and honors chemistry at Deer Park High School on Long Island for a decade and was named a New York State Master Teacher.

Above this post is the first essay, by Bergman.

Foreward to the project, by Brad Williamson

As I write this, I’m two days away from one of Paul McCartney’s songs having particularly poignant meaning to me. Most of my generation has retired from teaching. At 64, perhaps I should be reminiscing and looking back over a long career of teaching biology. But to tell the truth, I’m more excited about the future of biology teaching today than I have been at anytime over the past 40+ years.

Over the last decade, I have had the privilege of working directly, indirectly and online with many up-and-coming teacher leaders in the biology teaching community. I am here to tell you that these teachers have me excited. Some of these interactions have been through the more traditional routes of state and national professional organizations, like the National Association of Biology Teachers and through the AP Biology teaching community.   I’ve also had the privilege of working with the fellows from the BSCS/NABT HHMI AP Biology Leadership Academy and the fellows from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation.

These organizations and programs account for the vast majority of the authors in this collection. The ranks of the next generation of biology teachers are replete with great teachers and amazing teacher leaders—or should I say leading teachers. These folks are innovative, dedicated, and passionate about biology and their students. The authors of this work are representative of this generation of biology teachers.

A nexus of opportunities presented by biology education reform, online tools, and lessons learned from research into teaching is finally helping us realize the goal of designing truly effective teaching strategies. Intuition, the art of teaching, social skills and such still play a role, but we also have very clearly defined strategies that research has shown to be very effective at promoting student learning.

This fortuitous turn of events along with the rapidly expanding knowledge base of biology has placed this generation squarely in what Neil Campbell used to call the Golden Age of Biology Teaching. The massive connectivity of today’s world means that the teacher authors of this work actually communicate and collaborate with more than I used to communicate with the other teachers in my own district. This is despite the fact that they are, in some cases, thousands of miles apart. This group of reflective essays connecting student struggles and learning is but one small example the exemplary work these folks are doing using the tools we have today.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a generation that has the resources of the web, along with the connectivity of social networks, is coalescing into an independent force—a group of teachers leading themselves, taking responsibility for their own professional development, and developing teaching resources they freely share in the larger community. Like the emergent properties inherent in the various levels of biological complexity, this group work represents more than the sum of its individual parts. It is fitting that as a group they chose to arrive at the question/topic they wanted to explore, they edited themselves and they learned from each other—all the while preparing to share their ideas and what they have learned about the difficult topic of having students struggle to maximize learning.

This topic of struggle represents a very delicate balance between conflicting forces in the classroom. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has captured the essence of this challenge in his studies on “Flow.”

Flow is that feeling when you and your students are in a “zone.” The goal for a teacher is to design instruction that presents a challenge that matches our student’s skill level. The learning is happening at just the right pace. On the other hand, not much good comes from a mismatch that plots out on the left side of this graph.

Of course, since every class is composed of students with very diverse sets of skills, designing instruction that is balanced for everyone can be very difficult. As teachers, we want our students to do well but it hurts us to watch them struggle—even when we know they must for truly effective learning. How do we know when they’ve transitioned from “Arousal” to “Anxiety”? This leads to our own struggle to find the right balance in the classroom—to find that “Flow.” The teacher-authors here are very cognizant of that challenge and offer their reflections as they work through finding their flow in teaching biology.

I hope this is just the first of the conversations that these authors have about teaching and learning.   I imagine that this is a work in progress and, as such, I encourage you to keep this conversation going online and in your local contexts. Consider becoming a collaborator yourself when they explore their next topic. I hear that 60 is the new 50. If so, then maybe I can go back to teaching high school again and share in this excitement?

Introduction to the project,  by David Knuffke

The collection of essays that follows stems from two complementary thoughts, easily combined. The primary concern is my weariness at seeing umpteen books about education being published by umpteen individuals who don’t seem to be teachers. To be fair, there are quite a few books written about teaching by actual teachers, though these seem to generally be written by folks who are pushing one particular way of teaching, extolling the virtues of “teaching like an .” Personally, I don’t find either of these genres of education books all that appealing to my own educational sensibilities, in much the same way that I find books written about any profession are most interesting when penned by practitioners of those professions who are not trying to sell something to the reader.

The secondary issue is a pang of friendly, lingering jealousy that I have for “The Edge” ( and their annual “Question Series,” wherein a variety of interesting thinkers consider an interesting topic, with the best being collected and published annually. That’s an awesome format, and I’ve always enjoyed reading them. And, while the folks at “The Edge” are a clever group, I don’t personally believe that they are any cleverer than many of the great people that we have doing the important work of teaching children.

So it was that, in the summer of 2014, I realized that these two notions could be combined into an educator’s version of an annual question, provided that I could convince a group of teachers to find some space in their lives and write essays on a common topic.

Fortunately, in this age of connected national communities of teachers, it was not hard to come up with a group-generated list of more than 50 folks who expressed an initial interest and were willing to contribute possible topics to write on. A little more effort to put the suggested topics to a vote, and the inevitable attrition of folks to the varied and intense demands of the school year has resulted in the work that follows: more than twenty science teachers, all writing to address a common question: What is the value of letting students struggle in class?

I am impressed by these essays, both for how similar the themes they cover are and for the different approaches they take. They are each rooted in the unique perspectives and experiences of the teachers who have written them, as seen in both content and form.   But they all speak to similar pedagogical aims: The need to allow students to struggle with making their own meanings in the classes we teach, the difficulties of encouraging students to take risks in learning, and the important of doing everything possible to provide an environment that allows students to struggle safely.

Reading these, I can not help but be impressed with the amount of thought that these teachers are putting in to their profession and how deeply committed they are to the larger project of educating the students they teach, both in the content of their courses and the ways in which scientists work to make meaning of the world. It makes me feel good about my job, and the folks who do it with me, and it is something I am proud to share with anyone who is interested in what, exactly, is going on in the secondary science classrooms of America.

Which is a roundabout way of noting that all of the contributors to this work are science teachers. This is the result of a deliberate choice made during the initial casting about for contributors; it was determined that to be asked to participate, a teacher had to be teaching school during the 2014-2015 school year. Combined this restriction with the fact that the professional communities that I am a part of are communities of science teachers, and our contributor pool was somewhat constrained. At first blush, this may seem like a limitation in what follows, but I’m personally of the opinion that it is a strength. Had we cast our net wider to include teachers of other subjects, I think the work would have ballooned to unmanageable proportions, with its focus suffering as a result.

I am also of the somewhat selfish hope that, should this book find its way in to the hands of an elementary school teacher, or a math teacher, or any teacher of something that is not science, it might serve as an inspiration for them to approach their own professional community to create something similar, on a topic of their own interest. As noted at the beginning, there is a shortage of worthwhile books about teaching written by teachers. Maybe that can change.

You can read the first essay in the next post on the blog.

Letting kids struggle in  class

By Sydney Berman

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.