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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Understanding the Correct Method of Struggle

When Hunter, then six years old, began first grade last fall, he had difficulty matching letter sounds to the shapes of the letters on the page. Writing letters was difficult for him, and writing words was much more difficult.

Hunter, on the other hand, understands how to communicate what is going on when things get difficult.  When students in Hunter’s Illinois class encounter a tough concept, they are instructed to descend to the bottom of the learning pit, which is an imagined area where they may go when what they are studying becomes challenging. As well, Hunter understands what he will need to get out of the pit – hard work, his friends, and his instructor — and how he will feel once the ladder is completed and he emerges on the other side (“excited”).

Using the metaphor of the learning pit is one of the prominent educational practises that lean into the concept that hardship is something to be welcomed and celebrated. In the early 2000s, while James Nottingham was working as a teacher in a former mining town in Northern England, he had the idea for the game. He saw that his pupils, many of whom were low-income and resided in places with significant unemployment, tended to stay in their comfort zones rather than go out into the world. He hoped to instil confidence in his pupils by encouraging them to get comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable.

At a time when students are still hurting from two years of pandemic learning and isolation from their friends, the concept of purposefully making young people uncomfortable may seem wrong at first glance. Many educators and learning scientists, however, believe that now, as pupils work to regain their academic confidence, is a critical time for teachers and parents to take a step back when learning becomes difficult and to be specific that the effort will be repaid in the long run.

She went on to say that the concept of struggle as a necessary part of learning is well-established. Professor John Hattie of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia has spent the better part of 15 years researching the educational characteristics that have the greatest impact on learning. It was revealed in 2017 that he determined the variables that work best to accelerate learning, which he titled “10 Mindframes for Visible Learning.” Rather of “simply doing your best,” one should strive for greater challenge.

Teachers in the United States and the United Kingdom have discovered that the learning-pit metaphor is accompanied with conceptual handles that are simple to comprehend. When a kid is having difficulty with a math issue, he or she may tell the instructor, “I am in the pit with this,” which is far simpler for a youngster to accept than “I don’t understand.” In addition, a teacher may prepare pupils to “go into the hole,” as if they were embarking on a spelunking expedition.

Rather than providing clarity, Mr. Nottingham’s goal is to create uncertainty or cognitive wobble in the minds of students. Mr. Nottingham is the creator and executive director of The Challenging Learning Group, an education organisation. When you start to ride a bike, you notice that your balance is off a little. I’m trying to create that mental wobble so that they have to think about it more.”

It has been suggested that some academics go beyond just promoting difficulty and actively plan for failure. Manu Kapur, an educational psychologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, has spent the last 17 years demonstrating that students learn new concepts more fully and retain the knowledge for longer periods of time when they engage in what he calls “productive failure” — grappling with a problem before being given specific instructions on how to solve it.

A meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Kapur and colleagues examined 53 studies from the past 15 years to determine which teaching strategy was more effective: providing direct instruction on how to complete a problem before practising it, or providing well-designed questions to provoke thinking on a concept before introducing knowledge on how to tackle it.

According to Dr. Kapur, “productive failure” is most effective when certain principles are followed. For example, problems should be intuitive, challenging but not impossible, and have multiple solutions; students should work in pairs or small groups; and the class should understand that getting the “right” answer is not the goal, but rather deeper learning.

Using phrases like “the learning pit” or even “constructive failure” might be helpful as kids attempt to regain their academic confidence when they return to school.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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