The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to teach students to struggle and fail — productively

(Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

This is the fifth in a series of essays I am publishing that emanate 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 here; the first post, here, about how much struggle is too much; the second post, here, about the nature of struggle; and the third post, here, about conversations about failure and success that teachers are scared to have. In the fourth post, a teacher explains why failure is not an option in her classroom, but, rather, it is a requirement.

This post was written by Megan Fretz (@MegFretz),  a high school science teacher in Thornton, CO. She is a 2011 Knowles Science Teaching Foundation Fellow, a member of the 2014 AP Biology Leadership Academy Cohort, a self-professed ed-tech junkie and lover of all things cycling and outdoor-related.

By Megan Fretz

Sarah stepped into her freshman year expecting to coast.

Middle school for Sarah, bright and a social butterfly, had been a breeze. But as the high school workload piled up, and teachers stepped away from the regurgitation she found comfortable, Sarah found herself increasingly frustrated. The tasks presented required her to think deeply, to discuss, to process a variety of data, to write. She began to struggle.

All struggle is not created equal. Student struggle is unproductive and futile without conscious, intentional interaction on the part of teachers. Struggle must be fostered, steered, and ultimately overcome by highlighting student strengths, providing constant feedback for self-assessment, and celebrating achievement.

A student unaccustomed to struggle sinks quickly into frustration and the sort of melodramatic despair perfected by teenagers. When suddenly confronted with tasks that are not easily performed, that require collaboration with classmates and deep thinking to accomplish, students may find themselves barely treading water instead of swimming confidently. Sarah found herself in this very real and uncomfortable place right around midterms.

“I’m just not good at science! I don’t get it! I can’t do it! This is stupid,” she wailed, convinced that difficulty equated to impossibility.

Rolled eyes and missed assignments are to be expected when a student feels out of her depth. Dismissing schoolwork as impossible or impractical or irrelevant is a defense mechanism; devaluing schoolwork is a natural way of coping with struggle.

Teachers are not often privy to this exact moment when a student sits balanced on the precipice between giving up and struggling onwards. In Sarah’s case, the need for intervention was clear. She began a schedule of extra help after school, was allowed revised and attainable deadlines for missed work, and received constant feedback via email when she got stuck at home. Encouraging words and pep talks at school filled in the gaps.

Fast forward a few weeks and Sarah was slowly digging out of the hole she put herself in. Acknowledgement of her hard work, her persistence, and her refusal to give up became the theme of every interaction.

And, finally, the golden words: “Yeah, I think I’m starting to figure out this high school thing, and thanks for staying and helping me,” she said after school near the end of the semester. “When I just sit down and think about it, I get it.”

Add the heavy sigh and slight eye roll which must always accompany sincerity when you’re 15 years old, and you have a Hollywood-style perfect teaching moment.

Teachers exert incredible power. In an instant, a student’s self-worth can be destroyed; a casual comment or thoughtless jibe stunts what might otherwise have been a moment to reconcile a misconception or unveil an unnoticed contribution made to the group. Teachers must interact with intention to prevent students from reverting to negativity and to highlight the very real contributions each and every student brings to the classroom.

I won’t always be there at the exact moment a student tips precariously toward the path of least resistance, the path that leads to mediocrity and settling for something less than they are capable of accomplishing. Every interaction with a student offers a choice. Do I focus on the minutia of the day, the exasperation I feel at their lack of motivation or inattention to detail? Or do I choose to complement their insightful question or their engagement with the real practices of science when data doesn’t nicely fit their model? Do I celebrate how they wanted to collect more data just to see, and the unique way their group represented that data, or do I for the 500th time ask them to sit down and use their inside voices? That choice must be intentional.

Allowing students to struggle, to grapple, to debate, to ultimately create understanding is a given. However, student struggle will remain futile and ineffective without acknowledgement, feedback, and celebration of each success along the way.