Seth Godin had a great post this week called ‘I don’t get it.’ He talked about the importance of moving beyond “spoon fed” experiences to seek out new and difficult situations. In his words, “the best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it.”
I have seen this idea/concept in many places. The term ‘fail better’ or ‘fail smarter’ has been popping up more and more in things I’ve read, and 99u’s book Maximize Your Potential had a whole chapter on Taking Risks, with section titles like “Re-engineering the way we think about mistakes” and “Leaning into Uncertainty.” I think Steven Johnson (in Where Good Ideas Come From) does the best job of boiling down the concept of seeking out unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory:
‘Being right keeps you in place, being wrong forces you to explore.'
Being able to persevere through difficulty and learn new things is clearly important. But how do we learn to do that? How do we learn to explore when we don’t know. Seth had an important question at the beginning of his post, which is the same question I had after reading the post.
Who is teaching us to look deeper?
As an academic tutor, I work with students in the ‘I don’t get it’ moments every day, and this is an extremely important question for me. In every session, I try to be the one teaching how to look deeper. However, this cannot be achieved by demanding that they embrace failure and struggle through it.
High school learners are what I call ‘immature’ learners (simply meaning that they haven’t finished their education). Immature learners have significantly different stresses and a completely different sense of failure which makes it difficult for them to pursue self-directed learning, especially with years of teacher-directed learning behind them. It is important to provide students with significant challenges to induce ‘I don’t get it’ moment, but it is equally important to provide a support system that guides students through those moments and teaches them how to deal with them on their own.
Currently, schools and education are trying to challenge students with more ‘I don’t get it’ moments but, from my experience, the students rarely have systems or methods to deal with them. To the students, it feels like, “here’s this challenge that’s supposed to be ‘good’ for me, that I don’t know how to do and haven’t learned how to handle but I still need to get this right in order to get good grades and get into college.” It could be argued that well-equipped students will do better in those moments and stand out, but is high school meant to be a filtering mechanism where only the strong and already prepared survive? Or should we be teaching students how to handle these ‘I don’t get it’ moments? I think it’s the latter.
At the high school level, the focus needs to be on providing a framework for tackling ‘I don’t get it’ moments, with adequate support, rather than just providing ‘I don’t get it’ moment after ‘I don’t get it’ moment. It is important to develop a culture where ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I don’t understand’ are welcomed statements and are just the beginning of a conversation. The focus should not be just be on finding the answer, but on asking better questions.
When I work with students dealing with ‘I don’t get it’ moment, I am always trying to create positive learning outcomes. This requires pushing the student, while at the same time providing a support system or a safety net.
One student I had, who I’ll call Jenny, was a very typical New York City student; smart and motivated but at the same time stressed and anxious. At first, Jenny had a very hard time with the fact that I did not simply provide her with the answer when she didn’t know something. I pushed her with questions and challenged her to keep thinking about the problem to assess what she knew and what she needed to figure out in order to make progress.
This is an extremely uncomfortable situation for almost everyone, but one that we need to face. However, I make sure that my students know I am there to support and help them. So, even though I am forcing them into an uncomfortable situation where they may ‘fail,’ I am there to bail them out at the end. This support alleviates much of the stress, which leads to better learning.
Now, back to Jenny. Once she got comfortable with my challenges and, most importantly, trusted me to help her when she got truly stuck, she started taking more risks and attacking problems more independently. One of my favorite moments was when I opened my mouth to give her a little hint and she shushed me and said, ‘Don’t help me, let me get it on my own.’
Producing positive learning outcomes is not always simple. Many students struggle when dealing with the frustration and stress, causing them to shutdown. Then no learning is happening. I see this most often with students who are used to being right all the time, and then are all of a sudden confronted with an ‘I don’t get it’ moment. With no framework for dealing with it, they completely shut down. The way to help these students is not to throw more and more difficult situations at them and assume that they’ll figure out how to relax, ask the right questions and probe for the answer.
As an adult, and a ‘mature learner,’ it is easy to forget what the mental state of being a high school student is like. High school students deal with ‘I don’t get it’ moments every day, in every class, on every assignment. Not only that, but there is the feeling that the outcomes of those moments affects your chances of getting into the college that you or your parents want you to go to, which everyone tells you affects the course of the rest of your life. This is why a support system in addition to challenges is so important. Students are willing to take more risks and thrash in the ‘I don’t get it’ moments when they don’t feel like not knowing will lead to utter catastrophe.
When I think more broadly about the role of challenge and support in education, I come up with a few key questions:
How can teachers effectively develop self-directed learners who will solve the unknown problems of tomorrow?
How can we design a system that provides challenges and support for students worldwide without access to teachers (but access to the internet)?
How can we support ourselves in ‘I don’t get it’ moments to produce better learning outcomes?