Supporting challenge in the classroom

As I was wandering about the other day, avoiding the paperwork in my office, I ended up in a math class.  The students were working and engaged with a problem, but it was tricky.   The teacher got everyone’s attention and said, “I wonder if you and your partner have thought about which fraction to start with.  And that is all I am going to say.”  Perfect.

The teacher recognized what the issue was and gave her students enough information to regroup.  The teacher did not, however, rescue the students by showing them what to do.  It is hard not to rescue.  But struggle is good.  People like to think and figure things out.  The challenge and the struggle is what turns your program from task completion to rigorous learning.

But it is a “sweet spot”.  Because left entirely to their own devices students who are struggling can also become disengaged and discouraged.  We don’t want the work to be so easy that students are just “doing what the teacher said” but on the other hand, there needs to be enough structure that students are able to accomplish the challenge and learn something.  And, of course, different students need different amounts of structure.

And, of course, you are reading to this point and hoping I will tell you an easy way to find this sweet spot—but I won’t.  Because it is hard.  Because different kids need different things.  Because what works in one situation won’t work in another.  Because what is a challenge for one kid is not a challenge for another.

You can, however, reflect on your beliefs and teaching style.  Start by creating the conditions for challenge.  Look at those challenges from a student’s point of view and look for the hurdles.  Determine if students have the skills to overcome the hurdles or whether the hurdle will become a road block.

For example, students may be working on a science inquiry and not know enough about simple machines to solve their problem.  That is a hurdle you want them to overcome:  What do you already know?  What questions do you have?  Where might you find out that information?  What hypotheses do you have?  However, if the student has a reading disability and is not going to be able to access the reading material that will provide the answers, that is a roadblock.  If the student has organizational difficulties then he is going to require a graphic organizer to help organize his thinking.  If the student has time management issues then she will require you to provide frequent check ins and chunking of material.

Providing supports for students to meet challenges is not cheating.  It is not rescuing.  It is supporting.  As teachers we need to create supportive environments that support struggle and challenge for all kids- no matter who that kid might be.

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