Funkey Maths medallionIt is a universal human trait to want to give up when things get hard. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of mantras written to inspire us through these times.

Mantra 1: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

This one is well-meaning, but actually not very helpful. It divides the world into the tough and the not tough, and praises the tough. In younger days, I have definitely concluded on many occasions, that I’m not in the tough bracket, and I have used this as an excuse to accept failure.

Mantra 2: There’s no gain without pain.

This one isn’t helpful either. For starters it isn’t always true. Many gain without any pain. And many go through pain for absolutely no gain. This one just makes me cross!

Mantra 3: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

I like this one better, although for most of us genius is beyond our league. But the focus on perspiration feels encouraging. We can all do that bit.

The Learning Space

In the context of working and learning, it takes experience and maturity to realise that when the going gets tough, this is the moment you are most likely to make real progress, but only if you persist. That means staying in the uncomfortable space of cognitive struggle, where things do not make sense, questions are not yet answered and the way is not clear.

We need to teach our children/students to inhabit this space willingly. The more comfortable they are in this space, the more they will develop, not just academically but also as people. Struggle teaches us resilience.

So how do we make an uncomfortable space less threatening? How do we build our resilience in the face of cognitive struggle? There’s no short cut. We just need to practise being in that space. Teachers from nursery onwards need to allow children to struggle. Only when they are allowed to struggle, will they learn to persist and make progress. Well-meaning teachers (and for that matter parents) need to back off and let the struggle happen. As teachers we need to become expert at noticing when the struggle ceases to be productive and only then step in. The only way to become expert at this is to spend more time watching children struggle.

My Light Bulb Moment

I remember an occasion when, still new to teaching, I was working with a small group of students. As soon as students were heading off down a cul-de-sac or towards a wrong answer, I would intervene and prevent them from making a mistake. Subtly, through as little as tone of voice or facial expression, I would lead them towards right answers. Superficially it looked as though they were learning. They were getting to the correct answers. But one day I realised that the only thing they were learning was to interpret my clues; if left to do the work on their own, the children would not succeed. I’ve seen many other young teachers do the same thing.

Independent Learners

After this, I started to let children travel up the cul-de-sacs, right to the end. There was a lot of silence while they were thinking. When a strategy failed, we discussed why and they tried another one. Sometimes half way up a cul-de-sac they worked out for themselves why they were going nowhere. At those moments there was real learning. My job, I now realise, is to gently encourage them to keep trying and occasionally to reposition them.

I do much less work now and my students are more able to work independently, and with greater understanding.

So my mantra for you is simple: Struggle. Persist. Progress.

And let your students do the same.


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Blog by Maggie Steel.

FunKey Maths evolved from Maggie’s passion for helping young children enjoy and succeed in maths.

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