Today I took my personal children, as in the children that I am in charge of outside school, to the park with my father. It was a bit windy and cool, but the sun shone bright and soon the jackets lay on the plastic bench thrust aside while the kids opted for ease of movement over the warmth afforded by the attire. My six-year-old and four-year-old took off and went exploring the playground. My two year old apprehensively stayed by my side overwhelmed by the chaos of running kids whirring by.
At one point my son (the six-year-old) was attempting to climb onto a piece of equipment that funneled acorns down the middle back onto the ground. My son lacks overall muscular strength as well as core strength. He asked me to assist him in getting onto the equipment. I had watched him struggle a couple of more times before his request and had made the decision that he could achieve this goal on his own. I kindly responded to him that he would have to succeed on his own if he was going to climb onto the piece. He tried a couple of more times and started to become slightly agitated. He pleaded for help again with a tinge of whining thrown in. My heart wanted to walk over and lift him up. It would have been so easy. I could have taken away his angst with little effort.
Instead, I replied to him that he was going to have to accomplish the task on his own again. I also informed him that if he wanted to he could choose another piece of equipment to play with. The reason for this seemingly callous decision was that my brain knew he could do it on his own. My job as a parent was not to swoop in and make everything easier for him simply because I could. During this time there was another child modeling how to get up. Their choice of entry was quite different from how I would have done it but the task was accomplished. My son instead chose to continue attempting entry his way and finally was able to succeed.
I told him I had faith that he would have figured it out and he smiled at me with a goofy grin and obvious delight that he had accomplished his goal. This story is probably the most common story a parent can tell you about. They let their child struggle because they knew he or she would be able to succeed as long as the child put in the effort. I am not looking for parental accolades here. What I am asking is how many times do we do this with our students? How often do we let them struggle on their own before we step in to save the day? It is so easy to take the reigns and solve the problem whether it be a cognitive issue, a social squabble between classmates, or a psychomotor difficulty.
Our empathy as teachers can hinder us at times. We have been inundated over and over again that conflict is bad. Two students shouldn’t be yelling at each other. A student shouldn’t have to struggle with finding an answer. Kids shouldn’t be falling down or running into each other. Yet if we don’t allow students to figure out how to solve conflicts on their own how will they ever learn? Brian Costello says you learn empathy by being around other people. When people are around each other conflicts arise. This is natural. Dealing with conflict in sometimes unproductive ways may actually be productive sometimes. How can we truly understand how it feels like to be yelled at and have our feelings trampled on if we have never been in that position? I am not advocating for allowing students to yell at and abuse each other; however, I am advocating that the best way for students to figure things out is by allowing them to figure them out. Too often we step in and discipline when we should redirect the offended student to address the situation with the child they had the issue to before taking it to the teacher level.
It is hard to watch a student struggle while thinking. If we don’t allow that student to struggle where will they get the self-confidence that they will figure it out? There are always caveats to everything. We wouldn’t do this without first having provided the resources or allow this to happen in front of the class for an inordinate amount of time. We are encouraged to allow at least a five second wait time before expecting an answer from a student. That may seem like an eternity for a teacher who is ready to get into the next part of their lesson. What we do by eliminating the struggle is that students never get to feel the accomplishment of thinking and achieving. The right answer is not always the easy answer that pops into our head. Sometimes there is no answer at all until… ding the lightbulb goes off.
As a physical education teacher watching a student struggle with a physical skill is difficult. I can help them complete their task with my feedback or carefully layered questions that elicit the correct response. Am I doing them a favor in the long run? Am I making their learning easier right now but taking away some of their self-dependence in the process? Optimally we would like for them to figure things out on their own. If not, a carefully crafted question can do wonders in helping them to arrive at an answer that helps them.
So what is the point of all this? It goes back to the phrase “school of hard knocks”. Most people don’t think of that as being positive. They had to struggle and no one was around to assist them. I would like to start a “school of soft knocks”. The gray area found between floundering and breezing through. I want my class to be just challenging enough that a student has to work hard to achieve their goal but not so hard that they won’t be able to succeed without my help. Anything we value in life we have to work for. Let’s make sure our students value our class.
If this sounds like rigor to you it may be but you would have to use the third definition to arrive at this conclusion.
1. (a) Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment: severity. (b) The quality of being unyielding or inflexible. (c) An act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty.
2. A tremor caused by a chill.
3. A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.
4. Strict precision or exactness.