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Teaching Students to Solve Their Own Problems

In my early days as an educator, I wanted to solve my students’ problems.  I wanted to take away their pain and discomfort and make them happy.  I didn’t like to see them struggle.  If a student didn’t understand a concept or idea, I would explain it to him in detail in a way that made sense to him.  I was a problem solver.  My students didn’t struggle because I took any possibility for struggle out of the educational equation.  My students did work that was easy for them so that they didn’t get frustrated or upset.  Life was beautiful, but not really.  I was actually making life for my students, once they left my classroom, much more difficult.  They didn’t know how to solve problems or what to do when they encountered struggle because I didn’t invite struggle into my classroom.  My students then struggled immensely as they progressed through their educational journeys.  I was doing a disservice to my students by not teaching them how to solve their own problems.  Because I was doing all the explaining and answering of questions, very little genuine learning and growth was happening in my classroom.  Then, things changed and I learned that in order to be an effective teacher, my students must struggle and get frustrated in order to learn.

Today in my STEM class, the students worked on the math portion of the Astronomy Unit.  Many of the students worked on finishing their math work and beginning to tackle the final activity.  Depending on the course they are in, the activity differs.  The course one activity involves the students choosing a concept learned in the unit and creating a video which teaches its viewers how this math concept is applicable to the daily lives of sixth graders.  The activity in course two requires the students to create a video that teaches its viewers how to create a scaled drawing and then they have to design and build a scale model of a UFO.  Course three has the students creating an application or computer game which teaches its players a particular skill covered during the unit.  These activities require much problem solving in order to complete.  Our rule in the STEM classroom is to ask two peers before asking a teacher.  Even when they ask me for help, I will generally ask them follow-up questions so as to inspire critical thinking.  These activities are high up on Blooms Taxonomy and so I realize that not every student will be able to complete the work.  Some students will fail or not begin the project at all, and that’s okay because learning comes about through mistakes and failure.  Great inventors didn’t wake up one day and build their invention.  It took many tries, tests, mistakes, and attempts.  Learning is the result of doing.  If the students attempt the activity and fail, through reflection at the close of the unit next week, I will be able to help them see what happened and why they were unable to complete the task at hand.

A former colleague of mine had a motto for his students: Do hard things.  I like it.  Students can’t learn without frustration and failure.  The light bulb won’t go on upstairs unless they turn it on.  Our job as their teacher is to give them the lightbulb and let them do the rest.  They need to struggle and make mistakes.  We guide them, support them, and help them reflect and grow.  If they need assistance, we have them turn to their peers.  The way a sixth grader explains dividing fractions is far more relevant to a sixth grader than what I might say.  The students use student language and not teacher talk.  Last week when one of my students struggled to understand a math concept, a peer was the only person who was able to help him comprehend the idea.  My explanation just made it more confusing for him.

The neuroscience behind learning tells us that students need to be engaged in and doing what they are learning.  Easy tasks and busy work like worksheets don’t teach students anything except a hatred of busy work and worksheets.  If something is difficult, when you tell the students it is difficult but doable with effort, they rise to the occasion.  When a student is struggling to understand what he needs to do, I don’t help.  I validate his words and suggest next steps.  I don’t fix things and I don’t do the work for them.  Sure, sometimes this leads to anger and tears in the classroom, but then, those same students are the ones who learn the most because they overcame adversity.  We need to teach with rigor and support our students as they do hard things but we can’t make it easy and take away the struggle.  Students need to be able to solve their own problems and our STEM class is one of the places where they have that opportunity this year.  Yes, it’s hard, but when the students are asked what their favorite class is, the response is almost always, “STEM class.”  If it’s easy, it’s not fun.  The best things in life come at a stiff price and it’s my job as a teacher to guide my students through this journey and I’m not giving them the money, they need to earn that through struggle and failure.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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