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Sometimes the best way to help your students is not to help them.

by Elizabeth Horan Thompson

I don’t like doing things I’m not good at, and I know I’m not alone. That’s why, as a teacher, I hated to see my students frustrated and struggling. 

And yet, when I gave them something easy to “build them up,” they often became distracted. After a few years I realized that my best lessons challenged students to read and think about complex problems. 

That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to read research showing that access to grade-level content affects students’ future opportunities in college and careers. In fact, what I used to think was supporting my students—giving them easier content—was actually holding them back and exacerbating the difference between their achievement and that of students in the suburban district five miles away. 

Here’s some of the research on this idea that I found compelling:

  • What students can read, in terms of complexity (not skills like identifying the main idea and making inferences), is the greatest predictor of success in college. (ACT study, pp. 21–22)

  • In studies of what texts to use in the classroom, kids taught with grade-level materials do as well as or better than those taught solely with instructional level texts. (Tim Shanahan)

  • Student proficiency in mathematics decreases in higher grades—from 42% of fourth graders, to 35% of eighth graders, to just 26% of students in grade twelve. (NAEP) This forces many students to enroll in remedial math courses in college and take on extra debt. (2010 survey from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and the Southern Regional Education Board)

You might say, “I know my students need to work with grade-level content, but how do I help them?” I’ve noticed teachers and schools doing this well focus their energy on three things: 

  1. The school provides a strong curriculum and interim assessment—and time for teachers to understand the materials and data.

  2. Teachers use planning time to anticipate where students will go wrong and prepare questions and scaffolds to ensure all students have access to the content.

  3. Teachers use student work and conversation in the moment to figure out where students are struggling and to facilitate their learning from each other.

Doing things we’re not good at isn’t fun at first. Yet this is often when we learn the most. Giving all students the opportunity to encounter, grapple with, and work through difficult things is how we set them on the path to future success. 

Productive struggle can look messy—and that’s okay. Check out five of the most promising practices for encouraging productive struggle.

Elizabeth is ANet’s managing director of professional learning. She taught middle school social studies for three years and worked at the NYC DOE as an achievement coach.

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