when met with struggle, focus on strategies

we’re sure that many of you are like us and have hung on carol dweck’s research on the benefits of a growth mindset for your students  – benefits for them as people, as learners, but also benefits for your classroom community – and looked for ways to help foster this kind of growth mindset in your kids.

in a recent article we read, dweck addressed some of the misunderstandings of her research around mindsets. one area that stood out to us was the dangers of praising the effort when a student is struggling or failing. dweck said, “teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “wow, you tried really hard!” but students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. they also know you think they can’t do any better. so this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”

it’s well-intended, and feels good, to offer a student who’s struggling, and even failing, some praise, often in the name of boosting her confidence. dweck got us thinking, though, that we certainly don’t want to be encouraging our students to continue doing things that won’t lead them to growth or success. our goal is to have students accept challenge and failure as a chance to grow and do better, to see challenge and failure as a chance to change and improve.

what, specifically, can we do to support students who are struggling? what feedback or prompting is beneficial for us to give?

dweck goes on to say, “a lot of parents or teachers say praise the effort, not the outcome. i say [that’s] wrong: praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress; tie the praise to it. it’s not just effort, but strategy … so support the student in finding another strategy. effective teachers who actually have classrooms full of children with a growth mindset are always supporting children’s learning strategies and showing how strategies created that success.

students need to know that if they’re stuck, they don’t need just effort. you don’t want them redoubling their efforts with the same ineffective strategies. you want them to know when to ask for help and when to use resources that are available.”

considering this, our approach to individual students who are struggling could be:

  • acknowledge they’re having difficulty or even failing, and remind them that isn’t a bad thing – it’s information, a chance for them to learn and grow and try something new.
  • help the student name what they’ve been doing that isn’t working (i.e. we might say something like, “what strategy (strategies) are you using that aren’t helping you get unstuck?”)
  • support the student in identifying new strategies to try (this might mean offering or teaching a new strategy; pairing the student with a classmate who could teach a new strategy; pointing the student toward a chart or similar resource in the classroom with some strategy options; normalizing that when they have this feeling of being stuck, it’s time to ask for help)

while being mindful of the ways we respond to students individually is hugely important, we’ve also found that normalizing and taking on struggles as a class can also have a lot of traction. doing this helps bring to mind how it feels when we’re stuck and gives us the chance to work collaboratively to name ways (i.e. strategies) we might work through challenges to get ourselves unstuck.

here’s one way we’ve done this with our class:

  • we show the broken escalator video to our class. since our kids are fourth graders, they think it’s hilarious and immediately start exclaiming “just get off!” “walk!”
  • when the video is over, we say – really directly – “many of us (all of us, really, at some point) are like the man in the video yelling for help when we get stuck. when we get stuck, we stop and say “help!” right away, instead of embracing the challenge and trying new ways to work through it.” we often introduce this during math, and so we’ll usually say “when we get stuck on a math problem,” but it can of course apply to any area of our lives, and once we’ve introduced it in math, we can refer to the experience and conversation we had during math in any part of our day.
  • we then give students a math problem to work on that we anticipate will make many of them feel stuck, and so we’ll say “your job today is to get yourselves stuck – or to allow yourselves to get stuck on this problem – and then work through it, being mindful of how you’re getting yourselves unstuck.” we give students choice about how they’ll work – with or without a partner, with or without manipulatives, etc.
  • as students work, we circulate and check-in with them, not to provide support, but instead to help them name their process. we’ll say things like “how did you get yourself unstuck?” or “what was your first step? what are you doing now? what might you try next?” as we support students in talking about their process, we’ll add to a list of strategies that we see students using, and help students name it if they’re struggling. if a student says he wrote the information from the math problem down and points to a chart, we’ll rename it for him: “oh that’s interesting. you pulled the important information from the problem out and organized it into a chart.” in this way, we’re giving him the language – making a chart – to match what he did so that he now has a strategy he could use other times he struggles.
  • at the end of the students’ work time, or as an interruption, we’ll call them down and tell them the strategies we noticed them using and we’ll start an anchor chart. we’ll name the strategies that different students used – and add it to the chart as we name who used them – right in front of the students. the language on the chart will vary from class to class or year to year, as it is reflective of the work that we’re seeing our students do right then, and we’re using language that the students will know. here’s a photo of a chart we co-authored with students across a year: photo-2014-06-18-02-14-32-pmwe’ve sometimes also focused on the language kids might use (for self-talk or talking with a partner) along with the strategy, and made the chart look like this: image1.PNG
  • the chart grows with us over time – we can add to it across the year – and is something that we refer to when students are stuck or struggling. it becomes a resource for students to use when they’re struggling, and also a way for them to talk about their process when they’re reflecting on what did or didn’t work.

in these ways – for individual students but also our class as a whole – we can tie struggle to strategies so that, hopefully, our students will not just see value in working harder, but working smarter, and revise their process so that they are more successful.

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