Learning Through Struggle

From the desk of Middle School Math Teacher Kathi Bernard

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

One of the primary goals of the middle school years is learning how to learn.  Learning is a process: a process that takes time, patience, and determination to develop one’s own voice.  For most of us, developing our own voice does not come easily.  For a middle school student, experiences both inside and outside the classroom teach a student to find their voice and then use it to self-advocate.  As a middle school math teacher, I have been a mentor to many students — and a supporter of their unique voices to parents and guardians — as they make strides toward becoming their own best learners.

Each September during our annual Moorestown Friends Middle School Back-To-School Night, I share with my students and their families a favorite article of mine –  Finding the Glory in the Struggle: Helping Our Students Thrive When Math Gets Tough,” which was written by Suzanne Sutton, a math educator and writer who offers parents strategies to help their children through school. Learning through struggle and learning from failure are certainly not new ideas; nor were these new ideas when Thomas Edison (quoted above) made reference to them a century ago. Yet it is nevertheless a challenge to help students and parents to accept that failure and struggle are necessary parts of learning.  As Sutton states, “Struggling in mathematics is not the enemy, any more than sweating is the enemy in basketball; it is part of the process, and a clear sign of being in the game.”

“Finding the Glory in the Struggle” offers some ways in which parents and guardians can help their children realize that not all failure is “bad” failure.  A few of these suggestions include:

  • “Expand the focus beyond the grade.”
  • “Guide children to resources that can help (their textbook, their notes).”
  • “Value math homework – encourage children to do more than just ‘get it done’
  • “Resist the very common temptation to explain the struggle as genetic.”

Indeed, middle school is the most opportune time to try out new strategies and to hone one’s study habits. This is a safe time to experiment with a variety of study techniques, when the learning process itself — learning how to learn — is ultimately more important than the grades a student receives. (I have, incidentally, never yet heard of a college that uses middle school transcripts as part of the admissions process.)

Why, then, is it so difficult for us to accept that struggle is essential to becoming better learners?  Engineering professor Barbara Oakley, in her 2014 book A Mind For Numbers, explains: “Learning is often paradoxical. The very thing we need in order to learn impedes our ability to learn…Success is important, but critically, so is failure. Persistence is key — but misplaced persistence causes needless frustration.” How then, can teachers and parents encourage persistence while mitigating frustration?

One strategy that has worked well for me has been opening up my classroom to students for informal “extra practice” sessions before and after school. In this setting, students occupy a different mental space:  they are more willing to work through problems alongside their peers, practice using their notes and study resources, and make – and learn from! – mistakes. Eventually, students also learn how to ask questions that they would otherwise be reluctant to ask in a normal class period, when they may feel they are the only person in the room with a specific difficulty. My hope is always that asking questions in this more relaxed setting will help students develop the confidence to ask questions in the larger classroom setting.

Certainly, math is not the only subject in which struggle is an integral part of learning how to learn. In her 2015 book The Gift of Failure, education writer and teacher Jessica Lahey observes that in middle school, “failure is not an if proposition, it’s a matter of when…Learning to organize, plan, and conquer ‘what’s in there’ takes a concerted effort from students, parents, and teachers.” Nor is the idea of learning to succeed through struggle a concept facing only those educators working in middle schools. A timely case in point: Columbia University’s Teachers College very recently hosted an interdisciplinary symposium entitled The Success of Failure: Perspectives From The Arts, Sciences, Humanities, Education, and Law.”  Once again, the organizers proposed that failure is an imperative part of the learning process and articulated a series of pertinent questions; however, this time, the perspective was broadened to include all levels of academic work, not to mention examples in the world of business and industry: “We take here an alternative view of failure…What about failure as a good? … Failure that is a critical part of the process, not a means to an end? Failure that stands shoulder to shoulder with success? Can there be such a thing as positive failure? Can failure make progress? Can we use failure to improve creativity, education, or behavior? … How do we recognize important failures?” As educators, it is our duty to recognize “important failures” as opportunities for learning and growth. Failures are not the end points of learning, but they are absolutely essential to the process that makes real, deep learning possible.

Life is filled with daily struggles and challenges. Yet as educators, parents, guardians, and mentors, we need to work with our children to develop lifelong strategies for coping with struggle, which will lead to perseverance and grit as they work through the challenges of middle school and beyond. These strategies can then be more fully developed as they continue to apply the lessons of middle school to new challenges in their education and everyday lives. Sutton offers the following advice when framing struggle for our children: “Life will present them with struggles, whether we wish this to be so or not.  How they approach the struggle of mathematics will affect how they approach the struggles in life.”  So too can this be said for our own work:  as teachers, as parents, and as writers of blog posts like this one.

For a more recent article that discusses Suzanne Sutton and her work, please see the 2014 Washington Post article by Mari-Jane Williams, “How to get reluctant children to embrace math.”