What Do You Do When Your Students Hit a Wall?

Several years ago, my wife and I purchased a dining room set from IKEA.  Despite having all of the parts for a table and four chairs, the box in which it came was the size of a pillow.  How is it that IKEA is able to pack such large items into such small containers?  So, being the kind husband that I am, I assembled it; however, I would not call what I did assembling.  For a package with over one hundred pieces, the instructions included two steps: Assemble Table, and Assemble Chairs.  Okay, if I had an engineering degree, those instructions would have been easy to follow, but I don’t and so I was faced with a challenge:  What do I do with the extra 25 pieces I have left over?  I could have thrown them away and risked the chairs and table falling apart, or find a way to incorporate them into the furniture design so as to make them safe.  So, I faced a wall and broke threw it.  I assembled each piece of that dining room set as securely as possible.  While a few of the chairs were put together backwards or incorrectly, to this day, eight years later, the dining room set still stands and is in use.  Sure, it doesn’t look like the pictures on the box or in the catalogs and there are numerous cracks from wear and tear, but it works.  I solved the problem in a way that worked for me.  It was not innovative or creative, but it got the job done.  I was frustrated and grew angry at several points.  In fact, if I were to transcribe the event here, there would be several words blanked out due to their vulgarity.  At points during the construction process, I almost gave up and had to take breaks and walk away, but in the end I did it.  I solved my problem and overcame the challenge.  I learned that, with perseverance, I can do almost anything.

Helping students realize this same thing can be quite troubling and difficult.  At the sixth grade level, when they hit a wall, we sometimes see tears.  Instead of trying to coddle those students, I need to let them struggle with support and reassurance.  I don’t acknowledge the tears but offer them a chance to take a break.  The tears are their emotional release or catharsis.  Following their wall, they generally solve the problem and feel a sense of accomplishment for having overcome their adversity.  Plus, neurologically, they bridge gaps in synapses and make neural connections.  They grow mentally because of how they overcome the problem that faced them.

Today during STEM class, the students worked on finishing a partner activity regarding our current unit on wind power.  The boys had to create a map using Google Maps that included a paragraph explaining the advantages and disadvantages of wind energy, a polygon marking the area of the proposed wind farm near Canaan, the area of the polygon with a description of how one finds the area of an irregular polygon, and markers for the 29 proposed wind turbines in locations that the students feel will best harness the wind.  For a few groups, this proved to be a challenging project.  They worked together, asked each other questions, grew frustrated, asked me questions, and continued working.  Two groups hit a wall and couldn’t figure out what to do.  One group member in each of those groups ended up in tears.  Their partners comforted them and I allowed them to take a break.  Fortunately, when they hit their walls, we were in the process of transitioning to another task and so they had a chance to take a mental break as well.  When those two groups got back to work about 10 minutes later, they were more focused and figured out how to solve their problem.  They came at their problems from a new perspective.  Their brain was able to tackle the problem.  Struggle is how genuine learning comes about.  Those students who faced a wall today, will never forget this experience and are all the wiser and better equipped to face future problems because of what happened today.

Perseverance is one of the most important skills our students need to learn in order to grow and overcome problems.  Our brains are plastic and able to do many things, if we allow them to.  Our students need to get angry, frustrated, sad, and cry when they face challenges.  It’s what they do next that will determine how quickly they will overcome their problem.  Yes, we need to be there to support our students, give them strategies they can use to solve their problems, but we need to let them struggle.  If we solve the problem for them or tell them how to overcome it, will real learning ever come about for our students?

While it can be difficult to watch our students struggle and be challenged, our goal as teachers is for our students to learn how to persevere and solve the problems with which they are faced.   Today, I was able to help guide my students through their journey of learning and self discovery when they hit a wall and faced a challenge, which they eventually overcame.


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