She was one of the cutest girls I had ever seen. A big blue bow stood proudly atop her curly head of hair. Round reddened cheeks and big doe-brown eyes showing distress and frustration drew me quickly to her side. You see, I have a propensity for rescuing damsels in distress! Especially darling ones whom are struggling to open their grape packets in kindergarten lunch. What I wanted to do was rip open the package for her so she could indulge in her well-earned lunch. What stopped me was the amazing modeling that I witnessed from the team of adults in the lunchroom. Instead of rescuing these precious little people, they were patiently teaching the students how to open ketchup packets, Lunchables, milk cartons and a variety of other things. (Click here for a smile!) As I walked away in exhaustion, I could not help but appreciate the message that the Bethke Elementary staff was teaching their littlest learners. By letting them struggle, they showed the kids that they had belief in their capability to perform. By patiently standing by their side coaching them, they showed that this is a school full of caring adults. The big message here was that we are not here to do everything for you, but we will teach you how to do things on your own. These five-year-olds were becoming independent.
This experience sent me back to a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a retired high school Life Skills teacher at a birthday party. I have the utmost respect for this gentleman and those who work with our special needs students. As I picked David’s brain for wisdom, he shared what he saw his role to be. Because his goal was to prepare his students to deal with life’s challenges, he was purposeful in designing challenges for them. He was not focused on keeping the students at peace and compliant with tasks that they were already apt to accomplish. He viewed himself as a challenge creator who was there to support the kids as they struggled. After all, he would not always be there as their guide. His students were becoming competent problem solvers despite their disabilities.
The third experience that tipped me over the edge to write this post came last week in a first grade classroom. I am currently housed at Bethke Elementary while my new Jr. High is under construction. Many of the staff at Bethke are exploring how flexible seating can be used to provide choice and create learner-centered environments for students. While helping to raise desks so that students could stand as they worked, I engaged the first-year teacher in a conversation about how she planned to manage which students had the option to stand, sit in a chair, or sit on the floor. From my experience, I know that many teachers will avoid variability because of the potential student conflict it may bring. What Sarah said was powerful. She described the potential conflict between students as an opportunity. An opportunity to work through a small conflict that would help them to get to know each other. She anticipated their problem-solving conversation to include why they wanted to stand or sit or who had a turn already. She planned to be there to support them as they worked through the conflict. I was so impressed by the wisdom of this young teacher. Her students were becoming social agents capable of conflict resolution.
How do we move from being enablers for learned helplessness to becoming facilitators of challenges that will empower learners?
1) Plan for experiences that provide productive struggle – when struggle only leads to frustration, your engagement will drop. Being prepared to scaffold for students that are at various levels of readiness sets everyone up for ultimate success.
2) Talk less, listen more – by actively listening, you can understand where students are to better guide their learning path.
3) Respond to questions with questions that lead learners toward the goal – when done in a masterful way, the teacher is able to connect to previous learning or experiences that will prompt forward progress.
4) Allow for think time when questioning students – although waiting can be awkward, processing time is frequently interrupted by the teacher. Be patient and avoid the urge to rescue students from their thinking or demonstration of the skill.
5) Provide guidance, walk away and then return – this cycle promotes the expectation that you expect them to get the job done, but you won’t leave them stranded without support.
6) Celebrate the attempt despite the appearance of the product – remember that the production behaviors are what we need to be giving feedback on.
7) Allow for collaboration – many times the best strategy is to allow students to support each other through learning experiences.
As educators we must be be designers of experiences that our learners struggle with and ultimately overcome. This is how we build a growth mindset. In a world in which information is but a Google search away, educators who serve to only deliver information are irrelevant. Educators that support learners on a path to discovery, competency and ownership of their learning are invaluable. Are you becoming invaluable as you grow in your craft?