Monday, October 21, 2013

Savoring the Struggle

I've been reading a lot about inquiry learning lately, and the power of letting learners discover knowledge for themselves. This is true for learners of all ages - people from age 2 to 92 tend to remember and understand more deeply that which they had a hand in creating. A first grader who “discovers” that even numbers can be modeled by creating two matching columns of blocks to model a number will have a much deeper understanding than the child who memorizes, “2, 4, 6, 8…” The middle schooler who starts an interest-bearing savings account and the 35-year old who rebuilds his truck engine both learn life skills at a much deeper level than by simply reading a book about these events.

The key to inquiry, however, is struggle, and that something that's very hard for us teachers to allow. Letting a child struggle to accomplish something that we could help them solve with one or two well-placed comments requires patience and trust that eventually the student will master the task. It comes from a misunderstanding of where the learning is occurring - we tend to think the learning happens at the very end, when the math problem is solved, the engine is put back together or the savings account results in a longed-for purchase. But in reality, learning occurred during the period leading up to the final event. Without the struggle beforehand, facts are merely memorized and soon forgotten. No lesson is learned.

I'm reminded of a first grade teacher I knew many years ago while I was a reading specialist. I worked with several students from her class, and they would sometimes say, “Don't give me the fish!” while reading a text. When I asked the teacher to explain this, she told me that every year she would very dramatically act out the proverb “Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day - teach a man to fish and you'll feed him for a lifetime.” She created a story from it, complete with a poor, bedraggled man becoming rich from all the fish he'd learned to catch.

She then connected it to the culture they were creating in their classroom - they promised each other that they would never “Give each other a fish” but instead would find ways to teach each other along the way. She told me the parents had been especially guilty of “giving fish” by providing the hard words during nightly reading, but the students soon put an end to that by teaching the parents to prompt them with strategies.

I've never forgotten that teacher's important lesson to her first graders. I unabashedly stole it to use in my classroom for years afterwards. Those kids knew the power in the struggle. They knew that being given a difficult word or told a math answer took away their right to learn for themselves. Allowing our students to struggle isn't easy, but it's the best way to ensure they truly learn.