When I was a little boy and first learned how to ride my bike, I had all kinds of difficulties. I would struggle with balance, fall down often, and accumulate my fair share of scraped knees. This was not an easy task, as it took several hours, days, and weeks of guided practice before I mastered the proper technique. I don't remember a great deal about the process other than my mother and father pushing me to stick with it while providing me with a great deal of feedback and encouragement. I bring up this memory not only because I am in the process of unsuccessfully teaching my six year-old how to ride a bike, but also because I think it is applicable to our work with students.
Many years ago I was teaching fifth grade and the students were given an open response problem to solve independently as part of their first math assessment of the year. These types of problems are based on real-world scenarios and require deep thought. There are infinite ways of coming up with an answer and the process of thinking is much more important than the product (the correct answer). One of my higher achieving students was visibly struggling and approached me several times as I was walking around the classroom. I told him to read the problem again and see what he could come up with to solve it. After the fourth time that this student approached me, I sat down to make sure that he understood what was asked of him to solve the problem. He continued to ask, "Mr. Butler, do I need to multiply or divide here?" I answered all of his questions with questions of my own in an attempt to allow him to think for himself while owning his learning. As we went through this dialogue, I will never forget what he said to me in a very annoyed tone: "Dude, just tell me what to do and I guarantee that I will be able to get the right answer." Needless to say, I did not give in and let the student struggle through this problem which he absolutely despised. As the year went on he became more accustomed to the way that I taught and learned to think deeply for which he was grateful.
Unintentionally, this leads to low levels of engagement and surface-level thinking. I am not implying that we intentionally place students in harm's way; however, learning how to struggle, deal with adversity, and persevere are some of the most important skills that I want to see in someone who works in our schools.
Whether we are teaching our child to ride a bike or facilitating an open response math assessment, we have the ability to build or shut down perseverance and resiliency within our kids. It is important for us to create the appropriate conditions where it is safe to take risks, think deeply, and struggle in a productive manner. As leaders, we must continually build these skills within our kids by focusing feedback on the process and the results will take care of themselves. The struggle is real and we can learn a great deal by experiencing it.