Facilitating Healthy Struggle in the Classroom

As an instructional coach, I am often helping teachers try a new way of instructing in their classrooms.  In high schools, this shift is a little harder for teachers who were taught with lecture, taught how to lecture, and have spent a good part of their careers delivering lectures. In my experiences, I have found that many high school teachers have pretty light teaching toolboxes and are always hungry for new strategies to use in the classroom.

This was the case when I had the wonderful opportunity of working with a math teacher who saw the value in flipping her classroom and providing students more in-class time for in-depth, applied learning, but sought my support in the process. Together, we created an awesome, real world problem for students to tackle called “Where’s Joey?” Students, in groups of three, needed to use mathematics to locate a kidnap victim based on a cell phone call placed to his mother.

The first day of the activity went well. Most student groups made strides toward solving the problem, but it became clear to the teacher that the students would take a little longer to ‘get the right answer’ than she had anticipated, and that is when her worrying began, “What happens if they never get there? Do I just give them all the time in the world? We will need to move on at some point. Is it okay to give them hints?” The teacher was clearly in new territory. She knew it was important for her students to experience struggle in the classroom, but was unsure about her role.

Together, we came up with a few ideas that would allow her to keep the students moving forward without “giving away the answer.”

  • Instead of “telling” groups they needed to convert street addresses to coordinates, we handed out a QR code that linked to a  website which converts addresses to coordinates. It was enough of a hint to push them forward.
  • Instead of “telling” groups that their diagrams were not properly scaled, the teacher would ask them to reread a paragraph out of their text-book.
  • After a few more days of struggle, the teacher opened up a Today’s Meet chat space and asked all group to “chat out” their aha moments. This space served as a way for the class to collectively push each other forward with very little intervention from the teacher.

What the teacher and her students learned during those few days was invaluable, and I am not talking about the math. The students learned that they truly do have the ability to problem solve. They can use the resources available to them, their background knowledge and one another to collaboratively find a solution to a very real, very authentic scenario. The teacher learned a few lessons too. Struggle is okay. We do not always need to swoop in and save the day, provide the answer, or push the students forward. Providing them with the resources and support they need when they need it is the best way to facilitate healthy struggle in the classroom.

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