And I’m not talking about curricular problems like: how to write an essay, using longitude and latitude to find a location, or analyzing the causes of the Russian Revolution. I’m talking about problems like the following.
“Miss, should I use red or green for the bubble letters on my poster?”
Really? You have been waiting, doing nothing, for the last 5 minutes with your hand raised to ask me that?
Or the boy who asked, “Miss, when is this paper due again?” as he held a sheet of paper outlining due dates, step-by-step instructions, and a checklist. All he had to do was look at the assignment sheet he was holding.
When my students are working on projects, there are days that I run like a mouse in a maze, bouncing between my eager students. I don’t mind sitting down and working things through with them, but I get frustrated when a child completely stops working to ask a question that they already have an answer for. I’m saddened by some’s inability to push through to complete a task when it gets just a teensy bit difficult. I worry for that child who can’t seem to get started because they are so stressed about whether or not their ideas will be good enough.
Maybe these students just need a little extra attention. Maybe they need a patient loving adult to talk to them, reassure them, and let them know they are doing exactly what they should be doing. Maybe they just need me to be their advocate, another voice to combat the naysayers in their heads.
More and more I seem to encounter students too worried about perfection to even get started on a task. They shut down the minute they reach a problem. They don’t want to even take a risk in fear that their instinct might not be right. They sit and wait for reassurance rather than using class time to work.
I seem to preach at them everyday. Take a risk! Try things out! Get messy! Get lost in your research! It is OK to make a mistake. It is OK to fail once in a while. I frequently monologue on how they will learn much more through persistence than by getting it right the first time.
Yuko Munakata, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder recently published a study in Frontiers in Psychology on why this might be happening in my class. Her research shows that the more a student’s life is scheduled (soccer practice, piano lessons, dance) the less they are able to use their executive function. Executive function is defined as “a broad range of thinking skills that include planning, problem-solving, making decisions and regulating thoughts and actions.” She believes that by giving children more free time, more play, their ability to be more self-directed increases.
Maybe times have changed. We keep our kids so busy that they never get opportunities to make decisions for themselves. And then when they reach my class, where I push them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers, where I push them to be self-directed, they are at a loss when I don’t tell them exactly how something should be done.
So I will keep on giving my students open-ended tasks. I will continue to boost their confidence when they face difficulties. Keep telling them that the answers are within them. Keep saying to them that they are capable of great things. Keep encouraging them to take risks and reward them for it. Keep NOT solving their problems for them.
And I will keep annoying them by answering their questions with more questions.
“Miss, which color should I use as a background for my brochure?”
“Hmm. That is a tough one. What color do you think will better convey your message?”
How do you help your children to trust their instincts? Do you also see issues in your classrooms with your students not being able to persist through a task or problem?