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Do More for Students by Doing Less for Students

"Great idea, but it'll never work for my students." I hear this a lot when I encourage teachers to engage students in productive struggle rather than try to prevent struggle. 

I thought it wouldn't work for my students either, but they proved me wrong. I'm reminded of a class I affectionately call my Encore Algebra class: kids who liked Algebra so much the first time they decided to take it again.

All of my classes were challenging for me, as you would expect at a school where less than 10% of students achieved proficiency on state tests and the dropout rate was around 60%. But teaching (or trying to teach) Algebra to 10th graders (by age, not credits) who had already failed it was beyond challenging. It was overwhelming. Truancy. Defiance. Apathy. Intimidation. It wasn't that I had never encountered these behaviors before. But in those classes, I always had a few "good" students, and had strategies (such as heterogeneous groups and my Hierarchy of Help) for leveraging their engagement to help engage other students.  

My Encore Algebra class was different because not one student conveyed a desire to be there. Instead, it seemed to me like they were just counting days until they would turn 16 (legal dropout age in Illinois at the time). As a person, I felt compassion for these kids because I believed our educational system had failed them. But as their teacher, I felt exasperated.  

Traditional lessons. Cooperative group activities. Worksheets. Projects. You name it, I tried it. But nothing worked--and insult to injury, it was a double-period class. Then, about 10 weeks into the school year I enrolled in a course for math teachers at Columbia College in Chicago. 

The instructor began each session by having us work on a few outside-the-box math problems/brainteasers. While solving these problems in class one night, I asked a colleague if he would give them to his students. "Are you crazy?" he replied. It was the perfect response for me, because others' low expectations of their students motivated me to raise expectations of my students.

The following week I assigned my classes a few problems from the Columbia course. I also told them where I got the problems and that they were challenging for me and my fellow math teachers.  And students were responsive, especially my Encore Algebra class, which showed unprecedented determination and collaboration. Yet like many teachers, it was hard for me to bite my tongue as students labored over problems for several minutes without getting the right answers. But when I tried to insert myself, students interrupted me and said, "We got this, Coach G." 

Not what I expected to hear from any students, let alone those who had previously been so unengaged and unsuccessful. But I heard this from more and more students until I finally got the message: teachers often do more for students by doing less for students. Keys to doing this include:

  • Engaging students in rigorous academic tasks that are different from what they're accustomed to (examples below from my Columbia College class), especially when working with students like my Encore Algebra students for whom traditional materials and methods have been ineffective.       
  • Letting students struggle with academic tasks before inserting yourself. (Also recognize that students have different thresholds for struggling, and be ready to differentiate your responses accordingly. As I've written before, there's a difference between productive struggle and unproductive suffering.)

And if you think this won't work with your students, do what I did: try it. 


Sample Problems from Columbia College course 

  1. Seventy-two balls are to be placed into three containers so that there are three times as many in containers 1 and 2 combined as there are in container 3. Container 3 is to contain twice as many balls as container 2. How many balls will be in container 1?  

  2. What is the value of R if:

Q + M = C;  C + K = R;  R + Q = S;  M + K + S = 20;  Q = 4

 I'll share the answers in a week or so unless someone else does before then.


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