The Importance of Struggle
Brad Smith

When I was in high school, and even years afterwards as a beginning teacher teaching social studies, PE, a little math and English, the prevalent method of teaching and learning was that students entered the classroom, found their individual desk - usually arranged in rows - while the teacher took his or her place at the front of the room ready to start the lesson. The teacher was viewed as the “expert” or “sage on the stage” and students were expected to be attentive and pay attention to long lectures. Common skills among students were listening to what the teacher said, and frantic note-taking, often from notes pre-written by teachers either on the chalkboard or projected on the screen from an overhead projector. The hope was that students would get the right information down and study it well, in the event it showed up on a future test. 

In a recent Edutopia article (full article here: Talk Less So Students Learn More) Shannon McGrath, a K-8 educational coach and researcher at the University of Michigan, suggests a number of tactics that teachers should consider to get their students to a deeper understanding of the subject area. The first is that students need to struggle with the content - they need to wrestle with it. It is ok if students do not know the answer right away - in fact there might not be a “right answer” at all - they need to learn to navigate the many resources available to them to construct their own understanding as opposed to just being told how to do it by the teacher - that is how deeper learning occurs.

Jo Boaler, professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, said this about the need for struggle in education: “As parents and teachers, we do just about everything we can to make sure that children don’t struggle. It turns out we are making a terrible mistake. Research shows that struggling is absolutely critical to mastery and that the highest achieving people in the world are those who have struggled the most.” Boaler said, “when students look at me with a puppy dog face and say: “This is hard,” I say, “That is fantastic! That feeling of ‘hard’ is the feeling of your brain developing, strengthening and growing.”

The second point in McGrath’s article is that teachers need to reduce their own talking time. Listening to long lectures is not an effective way to learn. A Microsoft study identified that the attention span of teenagers dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 in 2012 (less than the average goldfish), but these alarming results are difficult to confirm; however, there is no doubt that “smartphones” and the so-called addiction to technology, is likely having a negative effect on student’s ability to focus in class, get the necessary amount of sleep, and prioritize tasks.

The Harkness Philosophy of teaching prescribed at Southridge does exactly what McGrath suggests: it forces students to struggle with concepts and construct their own understanding, and it requires teachers to talk less while skillfully navigating discussions that are student-centered and designed to maximize learning. Harkness is about collaboration and respect, where every voice carries equal weight, even when there is disagreement. It’s where students explore ideas as a group, develop the courage to speak, the compassion to listen, and the empathy to understand. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s a collaborative approach to problem solving and learning that leads to lasting understanding.

Submitted by Brad Smith, Senior School Principal