Getting Students to Grapple - Steve Barkley

Getting Students to Grapple

This week I was working with the Professional Association of Georgia Educators conducting day long PD sessions for instructional coaches and principals at three sites around the state. As we worked with the backwards planning process, I provided my frequent phrase that student achievement is caused by what students do-“Teachers don’t cause student achievement…Students cause student achievement”. Participants worked in groups to identify what student behaviors are needed to gain student achievement. I phrased the question as, “What would you observe students doing or experiencing in classrooms that would cause you to predict achievement will increase?”.

A team from Greene County, GA shared their list first and their opening statement was “grappling.”

(Participants are Rotonya Rhodes, Cuss Robinson, Jeannette Glover, Ashlie Miller, and Cynthia Sumner)

I love the word and as I questioned them to explain further they suggested that students grappling would mean they were, “exploring, asking questions, having student led conversations, asking ‘what ifs’ and doing several ’start overs’”.

My previous word to describe these actions was struggling. I think I like grappling better.

A quick online searchfor a definition of grapple found the following:

verb (used without object)

1. to hold or make fast to something, as with a grapple.
2. to use a grapple.
3. to seize another, or each other, in a firm grip, as in wrestling; clinch.
4. to engage in a struggle or close encounter (usually fol. by with ): He was grappling with a boy twice his size.
5. to try to overcome or deal (usually fol. by with ): to grapple with a problem.

Synonyms struggle, contend, wrestle, cope, tussle

In the September 2010 issue of Educational Leadership titled Meaningful Work, Carol Dweck writes about fostering a growth mindset for ability rather than a fixed mindset. (I examined this in an earlier blog.) Her article, Even Geniuses Work Hard, (pg16) states, “meaningful work can also teach students to love challenges, to enjoy effort, to be resilient, and to value their own improvement.” Sounds like grappling!

What kind of tasks can teachers provide that encourage grappling? In Newsweek’s recent exploration on creativity , they described a public middle school in Akron, Ohio where teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: Figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals.

How’s this for grappling?:

“Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.”

How often do you find your students grappling?

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2 Responses to “ Getting Students to Grapple ”

  1. Liz Says:

    Grappling as described among these students is very much like “Future Problem Solving.” Watching students work in teams to grapple with problem situations after they had spent time researching the issues involved showed me first hand the value of “grappling”! Problem solving can be a part of many subjects. It’s hard. Kids had to think. They said they didn’t like it. But over the years I have heard from many who said, “the most important thing I did in school was problem solving.” I believe it.

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Thanks for extending the thinking.
    The problem solving often creates a motivation for learning more… wanting to understand.

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