As a student, I continually struggled to learn new material and concepts and overcome challenges I faced. I usually just gave up or asked the teacher for help. Rarely did I try to solve my own problems, since I knew my teachers would help me or give me the answer I needed to solve the problem. I needed to do very little thinking on my own when I was in school and I feel like that is something that hindered me from successfully growing and developing as a student. Even in college, I found myself asking for help instead of trying to solve my own problems. If something didn’t make sense, I didn’t review the material, I didn’t ask a peer for clarification, I didn’t do further research to understand the heart of my question and lack of understanding, instead, I immediately asked the teacher, either in class or during office hours. I didn’t genuinely learn to persevere and think for myself until I became a teacher and needed to solve my own problems as I now was the person students relied upon to know the answer I wish I had learned how to solve problems I encountered in the classroom and with the academic material on my own when I was in school, but unfortunately I did not.
So, as a teacher, I make it a priority to be sure I empower my students to think for themselves, question the world around them, and solve their own problems. I provide my students with strategies, tips, techniques, and ideas on how to solve problems facing them. I also have a rule in my classroom about asking questions: You must ask two before me. The students need to ask at least two classmates for assistance or clarification prior to asking me for help. This fosters a sense of teamwork and community within the class. They become peer teachers for each other. Many of my students become very great teachers by the end of the year. I don’t want to be the Master in the Middle, I want to be the Guide from the Side in the classroom. I want my students to struggle and learn to solve their own problems. While I often provide feedback and suggestions when necessary, I rarely provide students with answers. I usually ask the boys questions to ponder when they ask for help. “Have you asked two of your peers for help? Did you research your question using reputable resources? Did you spell the word correctly before typing it into Google?” The most effective and real learning comes from the struggle the students face. When they hit a mental wall in the classroom, they learn to utilize a growth mindset to overcome the wall facing them. When they think about other solutions and possibilities, they are able to overcome the challenges facing them. In order for those “A-ha” moments to occur though, the students need to struggle a bit first. Then, comes the learning.
Today in my STEM class, using Little Bits, the students worked on constructing scaled-down versions of the space rover they designed in their small groups. They figured out how to utilize the Little Bits pieces to create their working rover. They communicated effectively with their teammates to delegate responsibilities, set a goal for the work period, and build their vehicle. They coexisted very well in class today. I was impressed. Every group was able to meet the goal they set at the start of the class. While it was fantastic to see the boys utilize the Habits of Learning we’ve been working on all year with them, my favorite part of the class was how the students showcased their ability to solve their own problems and persevere.
At the start of the class year, my students struggled to solve their own problems. They clearly relied on their teachers for help and the answer, in the past. They didn’t know how to ask their peers for help or how to see the problem in a new perspective. They usually stopped working or gave up when they faced a challenge or difficulty. I spent the first three months of the year teaching the boys strategies on what to do when they are stuck: Ask a classmate for assistance, try different solutions, research the problem online, or take a break and revisit the problem later. I have the students practice these strategies during the first two units in both Humanities and STEM class. I provide the boys with feedback on the strategies they’ve used and tried so that they can see what worked and what needs to be improved. This takes much time and energy but is so important in teaching the students to own their learning, persevere, and solve their own problems. I want then to see that they don’t need to immediately ask a teacher for help when they encounter a problem. I want them to see themselves as resources and experts in what we are learning about.
Today, I was able to see the students apply many of these strategies as they worked. They ran into numerous problems: How to connect the Little Bits together, how to make their rover go over a larger obstacle, how to prevent the front of their rover from dragging, and how to utilize the USB connection. Instead of asking me for help, they worked together to solve their problems. They worked together in their small groups of three to four students to find new solutions to the challenges they faced. One group attached two other wheels they had found in our collection of Lego blocks to prevent the front of their rover from dragging on the ground. Another group taped the Little Bits pieces to the mounting board to prevent them from falling off. As I saw groups encounter problems, I watched and observed what they did next. In one group, the leader said, “Okay guys, what do we do now? How should we solve this problem?” Then his group members started generating possible solutions. After trying a few, they found one that worked. In another group, one of the members researched their problem online. Every once in a while, a student did come to me, asking for help. In most cases, by the time I had gotten to their group, they had solved their own problem. It was awesome. I didn’t need to provide answers to my students as they provided their own solutions. I have empowered them to be their own teachers. Isn’t that what we hope for as teachers? For our students to persevere and become problem solvers?
While teaching students how to persevere and solve their own problems is challenging and takes much time in the classroom, it is crucial to creating and fostering a sense of community and learning inside the classroom. Teaching the strategies students need to solve problems, persevere, and overcome adversity facing them requires a deliberate approach. We need to give students specific strategies to use when they encounter a problem. What do they do? We then need to have them practice using these strategies in various activities and classroom projects. We also must observe how they use these strategies and give them feedback on how they can improve using the strategies to solve problems they encounter. We then have to move into giving them more control and autonomy as the year progresses. We, of course, support the students when necessary, but want to give them plenty of opportunities to practice using the various strategies we’ve taught them. Teaching students how to solve problems they face is a vital life skill they will need to have in their repertoire of tools in order to live meaningful lives in a global society.