I was recently with the secondary educators of Cache County, Utah,* on what can only be described as a fine Friday of professional development. These folks were just lovely, especially in light of the fact that I was a guy holding them back from their weekend.
In one of the sessions, we were looking at the mechanics of creating secondary classrooms in which struggle is normal and — dare we hope for it? — even desirable for all students.
The talks, as usual, were probably more instructive for me than they were for anyone in attendance. I learned a great deal from having to explore this question publicly and from hearing other real teachers respond and inquire.
Among my takeaways are the following two principles that make the normalization of struggle highly likely in a given classroom.
Principle 1: Every student must struggle.
If struggle is something that many kids in a class do not normally experience, then, definitionally, struggle is not normal in that classroom. As a result, in such places the students who do struggle will tend toward demotivation due to an awareness that they don't Belong. (i.e., “I'm uniquely challenged by this class; others don't struggle like I do.”)
Eventually, they'll find themselves running afoul of what I call the Anti-Belonging Hamster Wheel Effect. A fair amount of their cognition will be spent scanning the learning environment for signals that folks don't think they fit.
(It's a very scientific title, I know. Forgive me.)
And so the “struggle is normal” classroom has to be one in which the bar is set very high. As I said recently, classrooms that optimally cultivate student motivation are virtually always led by teachers with universally high expectations. This doesn't mean that you only need high expectations to help students grow. It just means that, in my experience and in my research, I find no way to optimally motivate young people apart from having high expectations that they must struggle to meet.
Principle 2: Everyone's struggle must lead to growth.
Struggle alone, however, does not motivation make. No human being can struggle in futility indefinitely. If a person is too persist in effort over the long term, that person must gain a sense, amidst the strain, that the effort is paying off in some way.
There's a whole art and science, I think, that goes into this, but the basic paintbrushes are pretty simple:
- Teach, model, and reinforce the sub-skills and prior knowledge bits that make growth toward your high expectations possible.
- As the teacher, define success relentlessly as growth toward the high bar you've set.
- In your communication, position the bar you've set as something much bigger and more timeless than you and your students — you don't want them doing this for you or for your vision, you want them doing this because growing in mastery of computer science or physics or biology or computer applications or public speaking or physical fitness is a timelessly good and human endeavor.
That's part of why this is a great job.
Best to you, colleague,
*Have a PD event coming up that you think I could help at? I do keynotes, breakouts, and half-day workshops. I'd love to see if we can work something out for your event! Lots of info about my offerings and experience here; you can be in touch to start a conversation here.