Week 3 – To what extent should we allow students to figure things out for themselves? – DJW

A teacher who I worked with was reading about the differences between our educational system and the educational system of other countries.  I don’t remember what they were reading or who said it, but their story went like this.  In the US, when students work on math problems at the board and they don’t get it correct right away, they get embarrassed.  Their teacher will ask someone to help them or allow them to go back to their desks.  In Japan (I believe it was), if a students goes up to the board and struggles, the teacher lets them struggle.  The student continues to work and struggle until they figure it out.  Once the student finally figures it out the entire class applauds.

The point I am making is that struggling is part of learning.  They key is to find that the purpose of struggle so students won’t quit, or you can instill growth mindset or grit in students so the keep at it.  Right now in our schools, the mindset is to not push students, make sure they are successful even in contrived settings and hope they don’t give up.  Many schools have a fixed mindset and instead of grit we have mush!

As Tovia Smith discusses in her article, Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead? “You can create a classroom culture in which struggle and risk-taking is valued more than just getting the right answer.”  I agree with Tovia. We need to change how we operate so students can struggle, overcome that struggle and learn it can be done with hard work and effort.

Of course, helping students obtain growth mindset or grit is not easy.  In Tovia’s article that I mention above, she talks about schools implementing school-wide programs, changing how teachers praise students, slogans plastered on walls and other training to help make this happen.  She also brings up a fact that parents or the community may not be fully supportive of growth mindset or grit.  Tovia Smith quotes an educator who says, “Parents love the notion of grit; they all want their kids to have it. However … no parent wants their kid to cry.”

My wife and I were discussing this as we drove back from Anchorage this past weekend. She explained that one of the biggest mistakes we can make for our kids is to not let them fail.  We need to get out of our kids way and let them fail.  Our natural reaction as parents is to help and do it for them when things get hard.  It is really difficult to let them struggle and sometime cry from frustration.  From this discussion we decided to let our son figure out if he was going to get a summer job and what type of job he should get.  We hope he won’t cry from this experience, but that wouldn’t be the end of the world if he did.

I do believe that tinkering as Sylvia Martinez describes it in her book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, is a structural education change that can help students learn growth mindset and allows them to struggle.  We have a long way to go to get there.  As Sylvia says, the biggest obstacle isn’t structural, “…it’s the limits of our own thinking” (Martinez, 2013).



Martinez, S. L. Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge Press. Kindle Edition.

Smith, T.  (2014) Does teaching kids to get ‘gritty’ help them get ahead? nprED. Retrieved on 5-30-17 at 9:32 pm at http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead.

Waclawski, M. (2017) Discussion in car with Michelle Waclawski.  Trip from Anchorage.

By waclawskid

6 comments on “Week 3 – To what extent should we allow students to figure things out for themselves? – DJW

  1. Years ago I heard a similar store about Japan and their math education. Since then I have let students struggle when demonstrating problems. I guide them as they work. Student are more proud of themselves when they final “get it”

  2. I agree that most people want their children to have grit but their actions does not assist in this growth of grit. Struggling and failure are definitely apart of learning but students don’t feel good about it. I have found that explaining the feelings of failure, anxiety, and inability to do something is normal but conceding as soon as we have this feeling is unacceptable. I would like my students to leave my class knowing that growing in our strengths need to have struggle and failure. Thank you for relating this to the concept of growth and fixed mindset. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

    • I really see this in sports. If students don’t have awesome experiences or are not the star, they want me to fire the coach. I definitely think there is something to letting students struggle and fail.

  3. My daughter is three, and I find myself constantly having to step back and let her do things herself. She already seems to have the attitude that if she can’t do something she should quit, so I hope I can develop some better strategies to help her learn that it is okay to fail.

    With respect to students, I think they are so trained that being wrong is bad that it will be hard to break that. I want to start having students do problems on the board but I don’t want students to be embarrassed if they are wrong. I think I need more training on how to get kids to embrace a growth mindset!

  4. “One of the biggest mistakes we can make for our kids is to not let them fail.” I love this quote in your blog and how true it is beyond the classroom. I have also heard that about Japan (and other Asian cultures) education and embraced (or tried) this idea in my classroom this year. My students really grew to understand that mistakes are perfectly okay– and in fact, it is better to make mistakes and learn rather than act like you know everything.

    Creating this attitude starts with the classroom atmosphere built at the beginning of the year. Many teachers asked me how I was able to get my 2nd graders to come up to a board and struggle in front of their peers (a concept so foreign to U.S. education) and all I can attest to is the atmosphere I created at the very start and kept building on every single day.

  5. While it is useful to allow students to struggle, it is also useful to get them to think about what they are doing. When teaching math, you can always ask a question and then allow the students to explore the result. For younger students, you might ask them to come up with a symbol for “less than” before showing them the accepted one. They have “=”, so what might we do for “less than”? It would seem logical that eventually someone would come up with narrowing the end with the smaller number and widening the end with the larger number. They would certainly remember which way the symbol works if they did it themselves.
    A questions for pre-algebra or algebra 1 might be, “why is it that when we multiply the expressions of two lines we don’t get a line?” 3x + 2 times x – 5 does not result in a bigger line. It is a question I have always wanted to ask students.

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