cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by sean dreilinger

I spent this past weekend in Banff at the Middle Years Council Conference where I did a session on using technology to improve communication and make our learning public, and listening to a number of good presentations. The two speakers that inspired this post were Phil McRae and Shelley Wright, as they both helped me tie together a few ideas I have been having trouble connecting.

Phil McRae spoke about where education is going in the future and talked about two specific areas we need to be concerned about – Technology and Parenting. The point I took away from his talk came at the end when a question was posed to him about how we can best focus on helping our kids for an ever-changing future and Phil’s response was that we needed to teach them Resiliency.

Shelley’s talk was amazing, she told great stories of the work she has done with her students and the power she found in giving up control of her room, her classes and her teaching to her students. It was an engaging 90 minutes, and the point that really hit home with me was when she talked about how her kids worked so hard and gave more than she had ever thought they could because the work they were doing had Meaning.

During our Innovation Week, there was a common theme we found amongst the really special projects our students were able to complete. We found that when the students took on a really challenging, but meaningful project, they all hit a moment where they were Stuck. A point in the project where the progress hit a stand still and the group or individual was put to the test. How would they move forward? WOULD they move forward? What we found in those that created great work is that they did find the motivation, or inspiration, to continue and to find the answer they needed on how to progress. In the end, they would all talk about how they didn’t know what to do or where to go, but that they kept at it and in persevering, found the path to success.

Resilience. We have all heard that its an important attribute to instill in our students, but how often has that comment been followed by “… and this is How”. Its very easy to say Resiliency but a heck of a lot harder to figure out how to introduce it, teach it, develop it, challenge it. I am not writing this post to tell you I know how, but I think with our Innovation Week project, we have found one method to create the opportunity for students to develop resiliency. I believe that one way we can foster resiliency is to create learning opportunities that follow this progression:


A) Start with Excitement

We need to create learning opportunities that get kids excited. Listening to Shelley talk about the projects she had done with her students, and the amazing results they were able to achieve just reinforced this idea for me. When we give our students the chance, they will exceed our expectations, but we have to provide them work they believe is exciting.


B) Get Our Students Stuck

We have to help students get stuck. This is a big challenge, and maybe one that you end up failing more than you succeed at in the beginning, but worth it if you are able to figure it out. We have to help students find projects that are challenging enough that they can’t just breeze through it, and not so difficult that they could never find success. With our Innovation Week, there was definitely a selection of student groups who were able to find that key zone of challenge, one that pushed them to the edge but that they were able to persevere through and complete. Yes, there were groups that fit on either side of this zone, some who chose work far too easy and some who tackled tasks that were a little beyond their abilities. When it comes to the ones that found that right level of challenge, maybe it was just luck, or maybe it was that these students had a very developed ability to judge their own potential. Maybe with more opportunities, the rest of the students who didn’t quite find the right challenge would develop this awareness as well. Maybe, if we know our students well enough, we can help guide them towards projects that are the right level of challenge for them, remembering that we WANT them to struggle.


C) Meaningful Enough To Work Through

Now that we have them “stuck”, what is going to happen? Well I believe that if the work is personally meaningful enough to the student, they will do what it takes to keep going. If the work isn’t meaningful enough, there is a chance, probably a pretty strong chance, that the student could shut down or walk away. We have all seen it in our classes, I know for me the clear memory I have is of trying to teach a class Trigonometry and a student being so frustrated by not getting the ratios that he blew up and ended up having to be removed to the hallway. So how do we make the work meaningful enough? My best bet is Choice. The reason that projects like Genius Hour are so successful, and that we see the best work come from our kids during these projects, is that inherently there is always meaning for the student doing the work. Innovation Week for us provided our students the meaning in their work to push through challenge and literally practice resiliency.


If we are going to teach students to be resilient we are going to have to have them practice being resilient. We want them to know what it feels like to be frustrated, to feel lost or helpless, to feel like they are at a dead end. That is not pleasant, and if we don’t give them the meaning in their work to want to see it to its completion, they won’t persevere. We found our Innovation Week provided a solid blueprint for this type of practice, but what has worked for you? I’d love to hear what lessons or activities you find provide your students a great experience in resilience.

10 thoughts on “Stuck

  1. We all work longer and harder on things that have meaning. Meaning and purpose are motivating. Having a real and personal goal is the fuel to work.

  2. I agree we work with variety of ideas and contexts so students can get exciting about variety of sources .work should we right level of challenge where they struggle to success if the work is not meaning full their is chance they shut down or walkaway.

  3. I feel we need to challenge our young people today. They need to be excited about what they do and to feel that they are capable and eager to do a good job. This will prevent them from burning out and losing interest.

    • I agree! If all projects were easy that didn’t challenge our students then learning can suffer. I think being “stuck” is very important because when the student hits the “break through” learning is captured.

  4. While we want students to know what it feels like to be frustrated, to feel lost or helpless, to feel like they are at a dead end, obviously the challenge is to assist them through the process not to give up.

  5. An important thing to keep in mind is that students learn from mistakes. We all do. We also learn at different paces. When students show interest and find value in a project or assignment it is important for teachers to be prepared to guide or teach them in varied creative ways by providing tools for success. Students may require lots of encouragement and reminders of the value in completing their goal. They should be offered cool down periods to refresh their thoughts and review what they have accomplished. Not pressured or compared to others that may work at a faster pace. The measure of resiliency is not be determined by completion of the project or accuracy, but by the determination not to quit or give up in spite of the pace of ones obvious learning progress.

  6. Providing a stimulating environment is one thing, but placing the entire impetus on the instructor is short sighted and ultimately damaging. Students then learn that it is their instructor’s duty to entertain them and if they aren’t amused they feel completely fine about tuning out and plugging in to whatever electronic device they have. I have recently gone back to school and I have watched this attitude that we are cultivating come back to bite the students.

  7. I agree with being “stuck.” Our student, regardless of their intelligence, should be challenged daily in the classroom. Our object is to facilitate a stimulating yet challenging environment in which they learn to problem solve on their own. Not only are we fostering an atmosphere in which are students are taking charge of their own learning experiences, but we are also helping them build their self-confidence and the ability to persevere as they author so eloquently stated. We want to teach our students that is okay not to know, but it is not okay to give up. We want them to learn from their mistakes and continue to find ways to grow. I like how the author duly noted that we must find projects that are of interest to them. Even as adults we are more likely to start and finish a project or read a novel that is of interest to us. If it is not as motivational, then the likelihood of completing that task is merely based on “have to” and you gain no education learning from that.

  8. Student group activities can often present the “stuck” card. The students can often scan the direction, rush through the specifics, then at the end find that they did not produce their best final product. The dilemma will be for the group might be – how far back do they return to the project? Students often do not like the idea of … starting over. The resiliency would be to have a math problem, a project, a reading assignment that does not have step by step directions. Students need more opportunities to have to explore, trust their gut, and to ask themselves questions with projects.

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