“I know it is hard; you can do hard things!”
“I see you are struggling; struggle on. You are so close!”
These are phrases that Meghan and I find ourselves saying to students of all ages and in all subjects. They are the crux of what we believe and try to develop in our students. We want them to know that developing grit, confidence, and understanding is work. Whenever I am working with a new student and I acknowledge that their task is difficult, I get a look that is a mixture of astonishment, relief, and doubt. Without saying a word, you can see their thoughts clear as day, You are agreeing with me?! It is okay that I am struggling?
Children today are born into a world where information, products, and ideas come at them instantly and constantly. Answers are easily accessed on Google, smart-watches instantly update us on our health, on-line shopping delivers to our door next day, and the list goes on and on. You name it, we have made it: instant, instant, instant. Yet, understandings do not always come instantly and it is disheartening for children. They assume that they should just “get it” or “know it”.
In a world where everything is at their fingertips, it is believed knowledge can just be transferred through osmosis or at least with ease. It is only a matter of time before students realize that this idea is false and that learning is hard work. At this moment, it is vital for teachers to reach out and help students face this new reality by acknowledging the difficulty of the task and encouraging the child to keep persisting.
What we strive to do in our tutoring sessions is create problem solvers, thinkers, mathematicians, readers, and writers. Most importantly, we want to create confident students who recognize they are capable of doing hard things and doing hard things means there will be a struggle. We want students to understand that struggling does not mean they are less than/unintelligent/unqualified, but rather that struggling is an opportunity to grow, acquire new ideas, and test out problem solving skills.
There is a fine line between letting students struggle and pushing them over the figurative waterfall. Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in 1924. “The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development)” (*Coffey, http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/5075). This is often referred to as the “Goldilocks Principal,” because the learning should be “just right.” As a teacher, it is of utmost importance that the student’s struggle is within his or her own ZPD. It is within this “zone” where students can cultivate grit, confidence, and problem solving skills. It is that edge of discomfort where they discover that they are capable of anything and that their dreams are achievable.
Image from: https://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-struggle-on-44/