Updated: Jun 18, 2021
If you read last month's blog post on giftedness, you are familiar with my position on failure, mistakes and struggle. They all can be healthy and contribute to brain growth! When I tell people that I teach computer science to elementary school students, their eyes usually become as big as silver dollars. I get it...I didn't have computer science until college and that was only because I was in the school of engineering. Today's learners are growing up in an information age so coding skills are more relevant. However, I teach computer science because I realize that my students need more than software or app development skills. Most will not pursue a career as a developer, but what I teach in terms of logic, problem solving and critical thinking will be useful no matter the career path my students choose.
Aversion to struggle can be a challenge for students labeled as 'gifted'. Sometimes gifted people feel like they should be advanced and 'good' at everything. But what happens when they're not?
Productive struggle can be defined as the process of effortful learning that develops tenacity and creative problem solving. When students face problems they don't immediately know how to solve, we do not want them to give up. At Marva Collins Cottage School, one of our shared values is perseverance. We are resilient when faced with uncertainty and see mistakes as a way of learning. Most of my students do not have experience in coding specifically or computer science broadly, so most of what I teach involves unfamiliar skills. It is quite common to be stuck. It is typical to 'not get it' right away. I see these moments as opportunities. I could rush over and tell them what to do, but I know the gift of failure and I've seen their faces when they persist and finally figure it out! There is NOTHING like that face...the sense of accomplishment is unparalleled. It is a gift to experience 'I thought I couldn't do it, but I did'. So I will never take that gift from my students. I see my role as encourager in chief. You will hear a lot of "I know you can do this" and "it's okay to try something...I promise it won't explode" in our classroom. I also use probing questions to allow them to think about the challenge differently.
The operative word here is productive. It takes a keen eye and kind heart to understand when their struggle is actually productive. There are certainly times when I encourage students to take a break. It's not necessarily at the first sight of trouble, however. Tears are common in my age group, but even tears aren't necessarily a sign to retreat from a challenge. Sometimes tears can be cleansing. They allow emotion to pass and then we are ready to give it a go again. Usually anger and refusal are signs of a need for a break. Even then, the work is always waiting for the next time. In our classroom, we don't give up. It's just not a part of our culture. Productive struggle requires creativity. We cannot simply do the same things expecting different results...that's insanity! Productive struggle also requires me to know my students' capabilities well. Although I am not 'rushing in to save the day', I am definitely watching and taking note. I am always looking to challenge students just beyond their capabilities. That way, I am fairly certain that they can find success. The point is not to consistently fail and lose self-esteem, but rather it is to recognize difficulty and gain self-esteem through fortitude.
More importantly, this isn't just Ms. Amaya's educational philosophy, but it is also rooted in brain science. Productive struggle enhances learning due to a white substance in our brains called myelin. Learning involves three key components of the brain: neurons, synapses, and myelin. Learning occurs when experiences connect neurons together. New connections among neurons allow brain signals to travel, but not necessarily quickly or efficiently. Repeated practice and mistakes tell the brain that the path is insufficient. As a result, the brain uses myelin to make the brain signals faster and stronger. A well-myelinated brain signal travels many times faster than an unmyelinated brain signal. So yes-- I see those tears and it certainly tugs at my heart, but I also know all that stands to be gained if the student gets the opportunity to learn from mistakes and see their amazing potential to solve problems!