Podcast: Learning Through Problems and Struggles - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Learning Through Problems and Struggles

Learning Through Problems and Struggles

“Neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity and if we are not struggling, we are not learning. Not only is struggle good for our brains but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential.” (-Jo Boaler) Creating student’s understanding of the value of struggle and creating a psychologically safe environment for that struggle is a teacher’s task. We need the same safe environment for teachers to collaboratively tackle the problem and struggles in student learning.

Read Jo Boaler’s article, “Why Struggle Is Essential for the Brain- and Our Lives” here.
Watch the Edutopia video, “What Makes Productive Struggle Effective” here.
Watch Robert Kegan’s “The Evolution of Self” here.


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

Steve: 00:35 Learning through problems and struggles. Two recent experiences prompted my pondering about this topic. Why is it that problems and struggling are important to learning? The first occurred in a coaching session. I was working with a high school mathematics teacher and he shared with me a statement that he constantly stresses with his students: “If you can solve the problems I provide without struggle or mistakes, you aren’t learning. You’re showing me that you have learned. If my focus as a teacher is generating learning, then struggle is critical. I need to be picking the right problems to present you that opportunity to struggle.” I found an article by Jo Boaler, who is the author of, “Limitless Mind,” and her article was titled, “Why Struggle is Essential for the Brain and Our Lives.” She shared that neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity, and if we’re not struggling, we’re not learning.

Steve: 01:57 Not only is struggle good for our brains, but people who know about the value of struggle actually improve their learning potential. The knowledge would not be earth shattering if it wasn’t for the fact that in the Western world, we tend to be trained to jump in and prevent learners from experiencing struggle. An international study identified that teachers in Japan put their students in places of struggle 44% of the time in the classroom. The study found that in US classrooms, that amount of time was less than 1%. That reminded me of a interesting conversation I had with a high school principal after we had done a walkthrough in a math class. As we stepped out in the hall, I turned to him and said, do you think there’s any kids in there who aren’t gonna need a shower after class? And he gave me a rather strange look. And I said, well, if you were observing in a PE class and there were kids who weren’t gonna need a shower, would you be concerned? And of course, he said that he would. And I suggested that the observation was looking as if most of the students weren’t breaking a sweat during this math class. Listen to this short piece of information from an Edutopia video clip on the importance of struggle.

Edutopia: 03:40 What makes productive struggle so effective? When students struggle to apply learning in new and challenging ways, they’re more likely to probe for novel or unexpected connections, consider multiple ways to solve problems and wrestle with the underlying differences between correct and incorrect solutions. All hallmarks of long-term retention. They also develop resilience, complex reasoning skills, and learn how to set and achieve goals while developing a healthy attitude toward making mistakes. So think about how to push your students toward productive struggle and try to be patient if they express frustration. Explain that temporary confusion isn’t a sign of weakness or incompetence. It’s how brains are supposed to feel when they’re on fire with activity.

Steve: 04:28 Boaler shares in the book, “Limitless Mind” that she interviewed many adults and it turns out that struggle helps them in all sorts of jobs. Many of the adults shared similar accounts of how they used to go into meetings afraid that they would
be found out for not knowing something. After learning about the importance of not knowing and of engaging in struggle, she said they now proudly show up and say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” She suggested they display a mindset of discovery and curiosity, which has helped their lives in many ways. Her comments connected with the second experience that I had that caused me to look at this topic of struggling and problems. I was watching a video of Robert Keegan, who is a developmental psychologist at Harvard. His video was titled The Evolution of Self. Near the end of the video, he was explaining what experiences we need that provide us with the opportunity to further develop.

Steve: 05:51 Here’s a summary. Keegan said that we need forms of challenges, experiences that run us into limitations of our own current ways of doing things, our own current way of making sense. He stated that we need good problems, the kind of problems that we don’t try to solve too quickly, because if you solve a problem too quickly, then you come out of the situation as the same person who went in. In other words, learning didn’t occur from the experience. That sounds just like that high school math teacher that I was coaching. Keegan described it as working with problems that we actually build a relationship with. I love this phrase that he used. He said, you use a problem more to solve you than for you to solve the problem. I guess that’s a great definition of what learning really is. As educators, that’s always present for us.

Steve: 07:05 We don’t have to worry about getting to mastery and not having any new problems to face and deal with. It really aligns with the message that I frequently share – that there is no mountain top to teaching. There’s always an opportunity available for us to realize that our students need us to learn something new. They need us to become different than we are now in order to maximize the learning opportunities for them. So just as students need struggles in a psychologically safe environment, as teachers, we need the same. Our students will present us with the problems and the struggles. That’s guaranteed. What we need are collegial partnerships like team teaching, peer coaching, and PLCs to generate that psychologically safe environment. Here’s a quote from Boaler’s article, which you’ll find a link to in the podcast lead-in. She wrote, “we cannot achieve anything creative without being comfortable with mistakes and struggle. And we should all embrace times of struggle knowing that they are helping our brains. When we adopt a limitless perspective, approaching different jobs and conversations with a comfort with uncertainty and struggle, with a willingness to learn from others and with a flexible approach to problems, outcomes improve in learning and in life.” I encourage you to create classrooms and schools where students and staff can learn from problems and struggle. Thanks for listening.

Steve [Outro]: 09:19 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what your pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs@barkleypd.com.

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