How to help students who say they are ‘stuck’

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Solution? The Brain, Book, Buddy and Boss system requires pupils to work to solve their problem before asking the teacher (Image: MA Education/Lucie Carlier)

If teachers are too quick to jump in when students are ‘stuck’, then they will not develop those key skills of problem-solving or resilience. John Dabell advises

When someone cries for help we instinctively want to dive in and help. I am all for responsive teaching, but when students “get stuck” rushing to their side is not always the most appropriate course of action.

Sometimes it is best to stand next to the lifebelt and watch them struggle. Better still, just walk away – because the deep water they think they are in is often just a couple of centimetres.

No-one likes being stuck. It can make you panic and it can get your heart rate right up. But intellectual activity is like that if it is challenging and getting stuck is part and parcel of the learning process.

Some teachers are too quick to react and initiate rapid response. They over-teach, over-model, over-explain and over-do it. Resilient learners do not just appear out of thin air and they certainly will not emerge from their chrysalis if we appear on the scene with blue lights flashing.

Struggling is good because learning is not conflict-free and students need to see confusion as something you go through – they need to see that clarity emerges from a good struggle and persistence has value.

This struggle occurs when a student engages with a task that seems beyond their capability, grapples with a problem when there is no clear path to a solution, and which is challenging but within the student’s reach.

This is not sink or swim though and I am not promoting that teachers under-teach. Far from it. Learning activities have to be within reach and carefully planned with deep connections that allow students to reflect on prior knowledge and engage in effortful practice.

Activities need to be tasks that students are interested in, they need to have entry points and students will need time to work through them.

At some point we can model, give hints, play devil’s advocate, scaffold and explain, but not at the first sign of confusion. We can put the scaffolding up around them but when the building work is done we have to remove the poles. Scaffolding is only supposed to be temporary, but some teachers never take it down.

Failure is not an option either, it is inevitable. Students actually need to fail in order to progress. Learning needs to be uncomfortable and bumpy with lots of obstacles in the way. Taking intellectual risks is crucial to tackle a fear of failure.

It might seem counter-intuitive but allowing children to struggle is good for their self-esteem because the setbacks, mistakes, muddles and mishaps they encounter teach them how to be problem-solvers, creative, tenacious, innovative and resilient.

Students without resilience get upset if they do not get everything right, they get angry at the slightest whiff of negative feedback and they can often wilt at the first sign of a challenge. They see a lack of immediate success as a problem. A student with little or no resilience has become too reliant on their support network and it is their support network who are to blame.

When students do the thinking, and take the responsibility for their own actions they can redirect, stay on task and stay engaged.

Within a classroom setting, fostering perseverance makes practical sense because students accept challenges and look on failure simply as feedback for how to do better the next time.

Teachers still teach but they know when to step back and transfer the responsibility to students. A classroom of problems-solvers try new and different strategies, review their approaches and do not put their hand up at the first sign of a wobble.

Normalising struggle, trouble and ambiguity is important because students can learn to accept challenge and failure as a chance to grow and do better. Productively struggling can give students a real sense of accomplishment, improve their knowledge and understanding and contribute to improved achievement, mastery and long-term retention.

Some ideas for the classroom

Although students will want to choose “Route 1” and ask the teacher, this will not build their perseverance, confidence or independence. They need to know that asking the boss comes after some deliberate solo effort.

Having a plan to get unstuck might depend on the subject you are teaching as there might be quite specific strategies to follow (e.g. maths and problem-solving) but there are some generic tips that we can share with students to help.

Some teachers use the “3 B4 Me” or “Ask 3 Then Me” strategy and make this the go-to plan of attack:

  1. Identify the problem – be clear what it is you want to know and work out how clearly to express it.
  2. Browse solutions – what resources are there to hand that will help? Look at what others are doing. How are other people getting unstuck? Think about how you can use classroom displays, books and the web.
  3. Buddy – check with three people in the class who you think might be able to help. These might not be your best buddies so choose someone who “gets it”.
  4. If students still find they are not getting anywhere, then they can ask for your help.

This approach is also called Brain, Book, Buddy and Boss – whereby pupils try themselves, consults classroom resources, ask a friend and only then do they approach the teacher.

Another approach sees some teachers using a “Teacher Support Ticket” system: students take a numbered ticket (such as those used in some post offices) and wait their turn to be seen.

Whatever you decide to call it, the idea is that it encourages independent learning and develops resilience, creativity and research skills. It also cultivates collaboration and promotes a healthy helping relationship between all – just like they would find in the workplace where employees help each other.

So, if you find that students are too quick to put up their hands and expect you to reveal all, show them three fingers – that is their cue to do some DIY learning, cooperate with others and commit to doing a bit of serious spade work first. If they cannot get out of their own hole then you can throw them the rope.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv


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