Earlier today I watched a video about struggle and challenge in education, and I’m very divided regarding its message.
The video in question profiles a private school in Massachusetts that uses challenge as its primary motivator for students. The idea is that students can often accomplish more than we give them credit for, and that encouraging them to struggle before they ask for assistance causes them to develop critical thinking skills that will help them learn faster in the future.
Generally I would agree, but they key contention I have with this idea is how teachers are supposed to find the balance of what is an acceptable amount of challenge. When working with larger groups of students, each of whom has different strengths and abilities, it is difficult to prescribe lessons that are an appropriate level of challenge for most or all of the classroom.
Another reservation I’d have with accepting this strategy verbatim is the assumption that students always want to overcome the challenges they face. Convincing students—teens especially—of their true potential, and motivating them to want to succeed is often extremely difficult. Peer pressure and groupthink, not to mention massive hormonal and cultural changes, happen in these years, and academic struggle can often just be one of a seemingly insurmountable stack of challenges students face on a regular basis. Changing each student’s self-perceptions is sometimes not as easy as placing groups of them in a cohort model and telling them to take risks. It may take a significant amount of mentoring to be able to change their thinking, time that a teacher doesn’t necessarily always have.
I appreciate this school’s model, though. I myself have been pleasantly surprised by my own students in the past who have surpassed everyone’s expectations. I’ve taught kids with brain injuries to remember math, watched teens with autism learn calculus, and witnessed one of my reading students win a spelling game despite his struggles with dyslexia. Belief in students’ potential and constant affirmation and encouragement for them to do their best truly can work wonders.