It’s The Struggle

I am currently reading the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, a book about talent “hotbeds”, places where abnormally high numbers of talented individuals come out of relatively small populations. The author went to these places to find out why these “hotbeds” were so successful in their fostering of young talent. He traveled to Brazil (soccer), Russia (Tennis), upstate New York (Musicians), and to the Dominican (baseball) to name a few, to see what young people in these areas did differently. I found it interesting that what Mr. Coyle found in these talent “hotbeds” was similar to the message Allison Zmuda gave us at a recent conference in Edmonton. She talked about making learning for our students “messy” and “uncomfortable”, providing them the opportunity to problem solve and be creative. What Daniel Coyle found was programs designed to have its participants struggle.

I don’t want to post the entire book here, but here are a couple great passages that speak to this point.

” Sally Thomas, a violin teacher at Meadowmount, watches for changes in the way students walk. ‘They show up here with a strut,’ Thomas said. ‘Then after a while they aren’t strutting anymore. That’s a good thing’ ” (pg. 93)

” According to a 1995 study, a sample of Japanese eighth graders spent 44 percent of their class time inventing, thinking, and actively struggling with underlying concepts. The study’s sample of American students, on the other hand, spent less than 1 per cent of their time in that state. ‘The Japanese want their kids to struggle,’ said Jim Stigler, the UCLA professor who oversaw the study and who cowrote The Teaching Gap with James Hiebert. ‘Sometimes the [Japanese] teacher will purposely give the wrong answers so the kids can grapple with the theory. American teachers, though, worked like waiters. Whenever there was a struggle, they wanted to move past it, make sure the class kept gliding along. But you don’t learn by gliding’ ” (pg. 93-94)

When I read this section of the book, a summary of what Daniel Coyle calls “Deep Practice”, it immediately reminded me of Allison Zmuda’s talk of messy, uncomfortable learning. She spoke of Carol Dweck‘s idea of a “Growth Mindset”, where students are not only tolerant of making mistakes, but actively seeking opportunities where failure is the most likely result. The idea is an exciting one, but probably not a comfortable way to teach for many of us. So how do we turn the corner, and get away from information delivery to struggle creation?

I believe the answer lies in risk-taking by our teachers, and administrators who not only support teachers in this endeavor, but motivate their teachers to take chances. We are never going to get to a place where struggle and failure are welcomed in our classrooms until we start getting comfortable allowing struggle and failure to happen without swooping in to save the day. We need to start talking to our students about failure and all failure has to offer us in our pursuit of learning.

When Allison brought this topic up, I was discussing the idea with Kathy Mann at our table, and she asked a great question. She asked “Why are we afraid of failure?” I don’t know the answer, but if I had to guess I would say that we have severed the connection between failure and learning. We need to mend that connection and make it part of what we do on a daily basis. It’s going to be a struggle… but that’s what we want, right?


2 thoughts on “It’s The Struggle

  1. I also listened to Allison Zmuda in Edmonton a few weeks ago! I think that she made some excellent points and offered some inspiration for many. What I found interesting was the severe contrast in approaches to education between Zmuda and Kagan (who also spoke at the #aac2010 conference in Edmonton). Dr. Kagan, a clinical psychologist (and I would guess a behaviorist to a certain degree), offered up an approach to educational improvement that was based off of simple strategies to increase engagement. His ideas were grounded in research (he sure did love data!) that showed how simple strategies can improve student performance on standardized tests.

    My take is that the strategies offered by Kagan are valuable, but they ignore this idea of having students struggle and be challenged to learn. He developed strategies that successfully increase student engagement, but he never talked about a need to challenge students with progessively difficult tasks. He never mentioned a focus on the nature of the discipline that we are teaching. He never mentioned an approach to learning that require students to struggle, fail, and learn from those failures. Allison Zmuda DOES encourage these things.

    So, to respond to the question “Why are we afraid of failure?”: maybe too often we educators are wooed by the clinical approach and simplicity of the strategies that are offered by Dr. Kagan and others. Isolated strategies are simple, easy to implement. A comprehensive disciplinary approach to teaching that challenges students and is appropriate to each of their levels is in itself a challenge, and difficult to quantify.

  2. Pingback: Teachers Should Fail Too! | Opening Doors and Turning On Lights

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