Jo Boaler recently wrote an article that began with the following paragraph:

“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.”   

The article goes on to say; “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. This knowledge would not be earth shattering if it was not for the fact that we in the Western world are trained to jump in and prevent learners from experiencing struggle.”

Upon reading this, I wanted to jump up and down and shout amen.  As an educator, it’s been my observation that not only do many students have an aversion to struggle, but even worse, some adults in the room have even more of an aversion to allow students to stay in that uncomfortable space for very long. How do we give the right kind of feedback that encourages the struggle?

Here are a couple ideas I have used over the years. What I often find is that the same students ask for help repeatedly, (those who haven’t come to appreciate the struggle). This is how I help the dependent learner take steps to become a more independent learner.

When a student doesn’t need more explicit directions from me to understand what to do next, I will simply give them a number between 1 and 10. Ten means they nailed it, and one means they are way off base. This way I don’t “lead the witness” with my feedback and they still have to do all the thinking, but they get a feel for how close they are (or far away) depending on the number.

Another technique I have used, and have seen others use, is a visual prompt. If there are several steps to the work, e.g., I am teaching long division.  Before I teach the lesson, I have a visual prompt displayed prominently, with each step clearly shown and numbered. When my assistance is being sought, I can look at where they have made a mistake and refer to the visual prompt and tell them which step they need to look at. 

James Zull, author of The Art of Changing the Brain points out that when students use feedback and are able to improve their performance or understanding, it triggers the brain’s pleasure center and reward centers, releasing the powerful brain chemical dopamine. This hit of dopamine motivates the student to apply more effort and stick with the task.

What kind of feedback do you use to help your students persevere? I would enjoy hearing your ideas.