All Students Should Be Struggling Learners

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Originally posted April 8, 2015 on Scholastic EduBlog

After a recent talk on academic and growth mindsets, a member of the audience came up to thank me and noted how judiciously I had avoided the label “struggling students.” ”That was great,” she said. “Good job!”

Hmmm, I wondered, had I avoided that phrase? I didn’t remember not using it to single out a group of students, but I’m glad I didn’t use it that way. In fact I made a point in that talk and many others that struggle should be the norm in learning for ALL students. When something comes easily, we’re not really stretching ourselves. When something is a challenge, on the other hand, when it’s a bit of a struggle, we know we’re learning.

In fact, there’s a whole body of research around something called confusion induction. What a great name! Purposefully making students appropriately confused, it turns out, can actually prime them for deeper learning. In addition, when students think they already know something, they don’t pay attention, even if what they “know” is wrong. On the other hand, struggling through trying to figure something out can give learners focus and purpose.

So I’m glad this educator in the audience noted my unconscious lapse, and now I do judiciously monitor those words. And they’re tough to avoid. Academics and educators often write and talk about providing support for struggling students. But labeling underperforming pupils as “struggling students” sends an awkward, subtle message. It says that struggle in learning is bad and that school should be…well, easy. Heck, if low-achieving students are struggling learners, what are high-achieving students? Cruise-control learners? Effortless learners? I-got-that-no-problem learners? That’s crazy. We want students at all achievement levels to be challenged.

If we’re creating the right kinds of learning environments and experiences, all students should be struggling learners. We don’t want to remove struggle, but we do want to manage it.

Okay, then what’s a productive label for the students formerly known as struggling? School certainly is and has been difficult for them. They do struggle more than their peers to master the same learning objectives. But there will always be differences in how hard something is for one student vs another. My wife, for instance, has a much easier time rotating images in her head than I do, and I consistently confuse left and right (a confusion I share with about 20% of the population, particularly other lefties). Consequently, she’s much more adept at putting together just about anything that comes with “some assembly required.” That doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It just takes me a bit longer.

However, struggle can cascade into frustration and disengagement. Too much of “This is hard for me” can lead to “I can’t do this,” which can then become “I won’t do this.” But struggle isn’t the negative state we want to avoid. We want manageable struggle. It’s defeat, frustration, and disengagement we want to eliminate.

What if we had a bucket for frustrated students? Who would we put in it? And what might we do to relieve that frustration? Or how about a category for disengaged students, learners who have quit trying, who believe that school isn’t worth the effort and don’t believe they have a chance of success? How might we work to re-engage them, giving them purpose and self-efficacy? In both cases reassuring those students that learning takes effort, that struggle is normal, and that you can always get better would be part of the answer.

So I’m shifting my language. No more negative connotations with struggling students. It’s a positive label and should apply to everyone. I’ll be trying out some other names to capture students who are not having success in school. I hope you will too.

©Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

Last updated on 05/31/2016