The importance of letting students stumble

One consequence of being away from blogging for over six months is that I’ve let some interesting posts from other bloggers just lie hanging without commenting on them. So, let’s look at two KQED essays on almost the same topic, one that I am reminded of as we start another school year. The first is Math and Inquiry: The Importance of Letting Students Stumble, by Katrina Schwartz. After observing that “class time, class size, assessments, resources, student buy-in, administrative pressures, and students’  learned helplessness are just a few of the reasons why it can be challenging to create learning experiences that are deep, authentic, and driven by inquiry,” Schwartz goes on to discuss a model for combatting these obstacles. The model, of course, is from a particular private school, so who knows whether it would apply to a comprehensive public school, not to mention a public school with the particular pressures found at Weston High School. Of all the objections listed, I find “students’  learned helplessness” to be the most convincing and most troubling — even in honors courses. For instance, a student writes “I like being told the steps to new concepts very clearly and specifically.” Not surprisingly, she is unhappy when she doesn’t have the scaffolding that she mistakenly thinks she needs. She is not alone in thinking that she has to be told what to do step-by-step.

The second KQED essay is more research-based: Bigger Gains for Students Who Don’t Get Help Solving Problems, by Annie Murphy Paul. The conclusion reported on here is provocative:

While the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.

Read the entire post; it’s not long. I’m convinced…but how do we cope with the student frustration that arises from letting students “wrestle with the material on their own for a while,” especially in a high-pressure environment? Hmmm….

Categories: Teaching & Learning