Remove the Guardrails: Facilitate a Productive Struggle

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  • Mistakes are essential to experience growth.
  • Support students and facilitate a productive struggle for maximum growth.

Challenges: Facilitate a Productive Struggle

Mistakes are critical to deepening one’s reflection and becoming available for growth.

Challenges are what we need to embrace the core of who we are, and what we could potentially become.

Failure does not define us. It refines us. It hones the edges of our intent, smoothes our corners, and humbles us in the face of those things that have proven to feel truly overwhelming.

I once read somewhere as a young boy that “if you run from the fire, you miss the opportunity to be forged by it.” I have taken this up as part of my work as a school administrator in conducting school walk-throughs.

Children deserve to make mistakes.

They deserve to have challenges.

They deserve to experience failure.

And they deserve to feel themselves being shaped and molded by the flames.

The productive struggle is what I want to see, hear, and feel in a classroom—that sacred middle where frustration, guided learning, and self-empowerment are found!

The productive struggle is what I want to see, hear, and feel in a classroom - that sacred middle where frustration, guided learning, and self-empowerment are found! Click To Tweet

Productive Struggle

A 2018 article in ASCD written by Barbara Blackburn states: “Rather than immediately helping students at the first sign of trouble, we should allow them to work through struggles independently before we offer assistance. That may sound counterintuitive since many of us assume that helping students learn means protecting them from negative feelings of frustration. But for students to become independent learners, they must learn to persist in the face of challenges. Productive struggle means more than simply giving a student “hard work” and leaving them alone to struggle. It is a learning opportunity that requires a teacher to create, facilitate, and monitor the process, especially as students are learning how to struggle productively.”

Consider these questions for your practice:

  • How do you provide for productive struggle in your learning communities?
  • What does support from you look like when engaging in that conversation and working with students?
  • In what ways can you frontload the concepts of mistakes, failure, and productive struggle in your classrooms and conversations with students so that they know, despite so much of schooling still being assessment-driven, that they can earn so much more than just a test score?

Gaps and Cracks

I struggled through so much of school, despite loving learning. I fell through so many gaps and cracks that you would have thought I could never climb out. There were a lot of factors for all of it, many beyond my control, others directly within my sphere of control, but that was where I exerted my influence, my passion, and my need to rise against what stood monolithically before me.

The struggle was all I had really known, and so that was my sweet spot; I felt I was born of struggle and so I would claim that as a companion and learn from it, stick to it, and wear it like armor until I could set it down and travel on unencumbered. I would eventually do just that, but it took lots of those struggles, and believe me, not all were productive. Many teachers, many mentors, many countless hours and IEPs, tests, judgments, mistakes, challenges, and failures later I am writing this with a steady hand and an open, strong heart.

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Removing the Guardrails

Removing the guardrails from one’s life starts with those classrooms and those teachers, and sure it begins at home and comes to us in all kinds of packages. From the primary grades to the graduation year, we are the conversation starters and the ones lighting those fires. We provide the challenges and then fan them. We give students the safe spaces to authentically engage in what frightens them and makes them unsure about learning, all so that they can find a stronger version of themselves in all of the mess and hardship.

Aren’t those the gifts life often provides? It is piles of mess, relationships that can’t mend, tough lessons around growing older, laundry that won’t dry, coffee that’s too hot, struggles to earn and learn, decisions about passions and paychecks, conflicts with partners, the broken heel, the flat tire, the loss of love, and conflicts with self. It is all challenges and it can all be built around being productive if we teach ourselves first, and then our students, how to embrace it, how to shape our will to see it as such.

Is it easy to productively struggle and remove those guardrails?

No, and if it was everyone would have everything they want, and nothing would have value, and we would lack purpose—especially in this critical teaching work of ours. Is it all worth it? I think so. And the world our students are growing up in certainly provides more than enough of it for them to wade through. It’s all risk, right? Removing the guardrails starts with us doing it in our practices and behaviors, and then leading students through it. For it is in those spaces, in those relationships, where all the real growth happens. No amount of testing can ever measure that.

Consider living in those questions, struggle with them a bit, give yourself that gift, and then, well, throw off the rails, take a deep breath, and jump. You’ll be amazed at how many students are right by your side through it all.

About Matthew Bowerman

Matthew J. Bowerman is a father of six, husband, school administrator, adventurer and storyteller who has spent almost 25 years in education. Additionally, he is also a national and international actor/singer/dancer. The author of the upcoming book, Heartleader, Matthew is an Emmy and Cine-award winning writer/director of the educational short film “BusSTOP,” addressing the bullying crisis in the United States. Matthew is a speaker and trainer with a focus in trauma responsive education, social emotional transformation, and staff/family empowerment and engagement.