Using challenge to prime for learning

It’s funny how the words “challenge” and “struggle” have developed a negative connotation. These are words we use on report cards to gently suggest that a student is not succeeding in our class. That saddens me a bit, as I think that struggle and challenge are not only important, but necessary, in the science classroom.

Some core facts and formulas in science can be memorized, but relationships and processes cannot, they must be learned and understood to be of any use. Learning is not effective when done passively. In other words, simply telling students something doesn’t mean they heard it, let alone remembered or understood it. The best way for information to be absorbed is if it is actively sought. When we go in search of information, we are much more apt to understand that information than if it is foist upon us when we aren’t looking for it.

One way to generate the desire to search for information is to create a struggle.

Consider video games. If you were to read a walk-through or tips page before beginning a game, you would remember only snippets of it, and then likely out of context or for the wrong level. In other words, useless. But if you are playing a game and get truly stuck, you will go looking for solutions – ask your friends, check the manual, look online, etc. You would know what you were looking for, and have an immediate application for the information. In other words, useful.

Providing a challenge that the students have to struggle with creates such a situation. A little sweat and frustration, if applied judiciously, can certainly prime students to search out solutions and be receptive for information that is useful and immediately applicable.

I use the “judiciously” disclaimer on purpose. Personally, I think challenges can be engaging and stimulating, but not all people feel the same way. Many students – indeed people in general – have a distinct aversion to risk of failure, so that has to be considered. Group and collaborative challenges, challenges that begin simple and become incrementally more difficult, and simply not overwhelming them are ways to help ease students into a mindset of rising to the challenge.

And ease them in we should. Because the more they are willing to take risks, tackle challenges willingly and flex their brains, the better prepared in life they will be. And if we can get our students to actively face complex challenges, the worse that can happen is they discover the solution on their own. And that’s not such a bad thing either.

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