A few students and I were chatting about homework recently. One of them mentioned that there were often one or two questions on my homework that he couldn’t figure out. I answered, “Good. If my homework was easy I would feel like a terrible teacher.”
I have shifted much of my language in the last few months when I talk about difficulty in my classroom. When students say “This is so complicated” I say “That’s true. That’s why it’s worth doing.” When students say “This is hard” I say “Good. That means you’re learning”.
When I first started teaching, I looked at my job in large part as making things easy for students. I did much of the thinking for them, I oversimplified, I led them step by step to the big ideas I wanted them to understand.
Stepping back and embracing challenge is, for me, an enormous part of facilitating real learning. But throwing kids off the deep end without the support to feel successful is unlikely to result in productive struggle on its own. Scaffolds are one big part of that, but the way students perceive challenges is a huge piece as well.
I’m probably at least a little annoying when I do this. I’m skeptical this strategy is much use on its own, without building relationships with students so that they are willing to take intellectual risks. But it also sends an important message about learning math, and about learning more generally. A bunch of theory about desirable difficulties is great. But more important is what I do to set students up to persevere in the moment.