Struggle: the essential ingredient to learning

Struggle: the essential ingredient to learning

Categorized under: coding for kids instructional philosophy

Way back when I was a kid in elementary school, I used to hate it when the teacher would ask the class for an answer and someone would just shout it out while the rest of us were still thinking. It's like being in the middle of hearing a joke, and having someone else interrupt with the punchline. Back then, I didn't have the vocabulary to explain why it made me so upset, but now I realize it's because my own learning was getting short circuited.  I wasn't able to make connections at my own pace. 

Surprisingly, as parents and teachers, we can unintentionally do the same thing to our kids. And the worst part is, it usually happens when we are trying to be the most helpful. We instinctively want to remove struggle from our kids' lives, and normally it's a healthy instinct to have. When it comes to learning, though, it's critical that students are allowed to sit with their struggle and frustration for a while before they get any help. There are two main reasons we want this to happen:

  1. As learners struggle with a difficult problem, they are activating any relevant prior knowledge and exploring the problem space. Both processes generate mental connections and help the eventual answer stick, whether that answer is internally or externally generated. Another way to think about it is the famous Clay Christensen quote, "Questions are places in your mind where answers fit." Without the struggle of coming up with specific questions (beyond the initial 'Why isn't it working?'), answers are just going to bounce off a learner's mind. In addition, psychological research demonstrates that emotionally charged memories tend to be stronger, so the frustration that learners feel can actually help them remember solutions in the future. 
  2. A large part of creative problem solving is comfort with ambiguous, wicked problems. Most of the important, real-world problems we face are ill-defined. We don't know about all the factors that play a role and we may not even be framing the problem correctly. These problems don't have easy answers and require repeated attacks over long periods of time before any progress gets made. Being comfortable with 'not knowing', while simultaneously having faith that you eventually 'will know', is the only way to emotionally stay focused. Nobody is born with this mindset, though, and learners need to build it up, like any other muscle. 

So it's ok if your kids get frustrated while working on something. And getting help from a trusted adult is by no means a bad thing. Just wait a little bit longer to help than you feel like you need to. It will pay dividends down the line in your child's understanding and resilience. 

About the Author: Omowale Casselle is the Co-Founder & CEO of Digital Adventures.