Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Struggling Student? Here's food for thought

The other day I was running errands and had the radio on in the car when I heard a story from Morning Edition. It made me stop in my tracks (or at least sit through an entire green light) because I think that it addresses a very important issue and highlights the need for an educational perspective shift. 

In my years of working at home schooling conventions, talking to educators and parents, it is inevitable that I will encounter teachers with students who "struggle" with one subject or another, or maybe even have a hard time with the whole school thing altogether. This is invariably expressed as a negative thing. Teachers and parents with students who "struggle" can be frustrated, saddened, or disappointed but they are rarely happy. And this has a lot to do with our cultural understanding of intelligence. If you are smart, things come to you easily. Those who struggle to comprehend subjects and concepts taught in school are often shifted to remedial classes or fall through the cracks. I've spoken to many homeschooling parents whose child was failing to learn in a traditional classroom and so they made the decision to bring them home where they could help their child learn in an environment that was more conducive to his or her learning style. Often times the student make great strides following this change, but that is not always the case. Some students simply find academics more challenging than others. In the radio program, Jim Stigler an educational researcher, argues that this should be embraced more.

Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA has studied teaching and learning around the world. In this research he has noticed a very different approach to struggle in Asian cultures. "I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart," Stigler says. "It's a sign of low ability — people who are smart don't struggle, they just naturally get it, that's our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity." Isn't that fascinating? In the radio program Stigler relates a story that has to be heard! You can listen by clicking this link. While much is made concerning the widening educational gap between US and Asian students, I'm not so much concerned with that in this entry as I am with how differently our cultures value struggle. 

Stigler goes on to say that he thinks Asians teach their children something that I'm not sure we communicate very well to our students: "They've taught them that suffering can be a good thing," Stigler says. "I mean it sounds bad, but I think that's what they've taught them." And what a valuable lesson. While our Facebook pages, Pinterest boards, and boardroom walls may be littered with inspirational quotes about overcoming struggle and triumphing, how many of us incorporate struggle into our curriculums? Are we embracing the challenge posed us by struggling students and children? Are we willing to give those students to whom things come easily assignments that are too difficult in order to teach them the value of tackling a problem head on and not quitting until it's solved? I know that this is a lot to consider. When faced with a struggling student, it's hard to see this as an opportunity. It's difficult and it requires more time, more effort, more energy, and for your average homeschooling parent, these are commodities already in short supply!

In my education, most subjects came pretty easily to me until I got to high school when algebra, geometry, and biology rocked my confident little mind. In my algebra and biology classes my teachers had no time for someone like me who struggled with the topics. There was no encouragement, no guidance. I struggled alone and did poorly because these teachers devoted all their energies to the students who quickly grasped the subjects. I remember feeling as though I was drowning under an avalanche of incomprehensible material. This feeling was entirely new to me and I did not know what to do with it! I did not want to admit struggle because I equated that with failure. 

My geometry teacher was different. She did not write off students who found the material challenging. She embraced the students who struggled and worked with us until we understood the concepts. And I can tell you that the A- I earned in that class meant so much more to me than the other classes I sailed through.

And yet, even in my own experience, I never equated struggle with something that was fundamentally important. Academic struggle has been devalued in our culture and I think it's to our detriment. Struggle has many benefits, not immediately seen by young students in the midst of the difficulty. Those who struggle and triumph gain a confidence that will take them a long way. It can also create empathy. If you have never struggled to grasp a concept, it's difficult to feel for those who do. And, I believe that struggle, academic or otherwise, creates a fortitude of person. Of course, these benefits only come if a person is able to work through that struggle and come to a successful end. If the problems placed before a child are too difficult and the struggle is futile and this experience is repeated on a regular basis, this can be severely damaging. As with most things, it's in the balance that one finds the benefit. So, I would love to hear from you! Are you prone to minimize any struggles your student may encounter? Do you embrace it? At what point do you step in and limit struggle? For students who are naturally gifted, how do you challenge them so that they can experience the process of struggle? Do you think our culture will ever be able to adapt a more Asian perspective on struggle and incorporate that into our classrooms? And in case you haven't clicked it already, here's another link to the radio show and here's a link to the transcript in case you'd rather read it. 

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Photo Credit: greenbaychic


  1. This is such good food for thought. It reminds me of the quote of Thomas Edison regarding his many experiments is pursuit of the light bulb. "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." The way we perceive struggle makes all the difference!

  2. Prior to marrying and rearing my own children, I taught inner city children in public schools. Every day, all day could be summarized in one word - struggle. Many of my students were confronted, for the first time, with the requirement that they meet precise standards in order to pass and advance to the next grade. A vast majority could not read beyond a 4th grade level (I taught high school students). Struggling through my class was manifestly rewarding for them. They had to put off the values of entitlement and put on the values of diligence and perseverance. It was painful for all of us! Across town, a good friend taught high school students in the city's premier prep school. She faced the same struggle in this affluent and intellectual academy - the struggle against parents' and students' entitlement mentality. Day by day she and I taught in starkly different worlds...but we quickly learned that our classrooms were not all that different from one another. Her students would go on to ivy league schools. Few of mine would attend college at all. But from a heart-view, our students were pursuing life out of the same easy-street value system. It will be difficult to turn the cultural tide without a changed culture-heart.