From Struggle to Strength

I lift weights. You can stop laughing now. I really do lift weights on a rather regular schedule. I’ve done some weight training in a fairly consistent manner since I was a college freshman. What I have learned in those years is to build strength you have to set up a struggle. The struggle doesn’t have to be big – in fact in weight training you should increase the struggle in small steps so you don’t hurt yourself – but you do have to create situations that require a little something extra to accomplish the lift if you want to build muscle. When adding weights, it’s safest to have a spotter – someone who can help you if needed – present to ensure you complete the lift.  

The same principles apply to classroom work for students. If students are to strengthen their academic skills, they need to undertake some difficult work. The work shouldn’t be so stringent that they are crushed by the attempts, but there should be sufficient struggle in order to build their cognitive powers. Teachers need to know their students well, introduce them to difficult material on a regular basis, and support them throughout the learning process. In the article The Struggle is Real: How Difficult Work Strengthens Student Achievement, author Matt Johnson provides the following suggestions for helping students undertake difficult work:

  1. Summarize key ideas. As students begin working with more difficult content, have them start by identifying the big picture pieces and summarizing them in their own words. 
  2. Assess frequently in a low-stakes manner. Checking for understanding on a regular basis can help students identify weak areas and put supports into place that will help them better understand in the long run. 
  3. Jump in and wrestle with the new content. Ask students the big questions up front before providing any instruction and let them rely on prior knowledge to find answers. This approach lets them see the big picture and gets them into creative thinking early in the learning process. 
  4. Practice transfer activities. When asking big questions, identify similar issues from other content areas and ask students how they might use what they learned before might be used now. Make the connections overt. 

As you prepare for next week, plan for some difficult tasks and be prepared to be the spotter every student needs to complete their lifts. You and your students will be glad you did!

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