Stifling Persistence

I originally start this conversation on my blog the other day and feel that Inquire Within would be a better place to continue it.

This morning I was confronted by a colleague.
While her approach wasn’t as professional as I would have normally expected, she raised an important question — Side note: Don’t let your passion be confused with anxious angst. It’s not flattering.
To provide you with some context, the fifth and sixth grade classrooms at Mills Elementary are attempting to change the way learning takes place in their school. It’s nothing extraordinary; it’s all just based on student inquiry.
While we all agree that inquiry-based learning will provide our students with a more meaningful context and relevance to their schooling, we are at odds about what inquiry looks like and to what extent do we take it. Actually, we all seem to have a common perception of what student inquiry looks like, we just don’t agree on how much involvement a teacher should have during the process.
Let me describe the two sides of what unfortunately became a near-argument.
Her Side
Inquiry is about persistence. It is about the process. Students need opportunities to struggle, make mistakes–even fail–and then reflect, rethink it, and reapproach. Repeat. They need to fail and experience that process. It shouldn’t be about the end goal but about what they learn during the process. If the teacher steps in during the process, he has stifled persistence and polluted inquiry.
My Side
Inquiry is about persistence. It is about the process. Students need opportunities to struggle, make mistakes–even fail–and then reflect, rethink it, and reapproach. Repeat. They need to fail and experience that process. It shouldn’t be about the end goal but about what they learn during the process. At certain points during the process, some students may need a spot–think weightlifting–or frustration stifles persistence and pollutes inquiry.
So which is it?
What are your thoughts?
Do we allow students to try and try and try and fail and fail and fail for the sake of the process? Do we avoid the possibility of stifling persistence by not asking, “Have you tried this?” Do we keep inquiry pure by allowing students to fail, even if that means there is no tangible end product?
Do we allow students to try and try and try and fail and fail and just before they give up we ask, “Have you tried this?”
In a fifth grade classroom, with students who are not
accustomed to having this much ownership of their learning, I have already seen many of my students frustration ceilings. My concern is this. Will it reach a point where they give up? Can a student struggle-fail-repeat too much; to the point they lose all confidence in themselves and the process? I don’t know.
Featured Image — cc licensed flickr photo shared by majorvols and remixed by me.
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12 Responses to Stifling Persistence

  1. Alex Van Tol says:

    I’m with the “guided persistence” approach here. It’s not quite as real-world, perhaps, but we need to accept our role as … well, as guides for our youngsters. To let kids reach a level of frustration risks turning them off even asking in the first place. Great post. Thanks for the think.


  2. I agree with the “guided” approach. Students need to struggle, but when they’ve tried everything they can think of, help is needed, even if it’s just to nudge them in the right direction. I never come out and give my student the answer, but I give them just a little hint that sets them in the right direction, or I’ll ask questions that start them thinking along that line.


  3. Jeremy M. says:

    On the original post, Scott MacClintic shared this:

    “…I use the phrase “controlled frustration” to describe to my students (mostly 11/12th graders) my approach. I want them frustrated frequently as a result of failure but only enough to motivate them to solve the problem or work through the TEMPORARY roadblock. If the frustration/failure leads to giving up, then I have lost them and they will not be motivated to keep at it. When a student comes to me and says “I can’t do….”, I correct them and say “Don’t you mean to say that you are temporarily unable?” They quickly learn that I do not allow “I can’t” statements.”

    This really solidified what I am thinking. The temporary-ness of the roadblocks is what I feel is important. We can’t leave them hanging. The frustration must be controlled and monitored. Students need to see it as a motivator and not as failure.

    And that brings me to something else I’ll be posting on…the word failure itself. I feel it is misused or used out of its proper context typically.


  4. whatedsaid says:

    I have never thought of inquiry learning as leaving kids to sink or swim! WHY would we do that?
    Inquiry in the broad sense is where kids have ownership of their learning. It requires teachers to let go… but not to disappear altogether! Learners are encouraged to ask questions, to think and wonder, to experiment and play with possibilities, to discover and uncover things for themselves, to explore options… The teacher’s role is to listen really carefully and guide as required… not by giving the answers or telling them what to do, but by asking further questions. ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘What else might you try?’ ‘How can you find this out?’. I think that especially for kids new to inquiry, ‘leaving them to it’ is not the answer.


  5. I have never thought of inquiry as leading to total failure. We do have a role in all of this and it is to guide when necessary. If we are to allow complete failure then what is our role in the process?
    Why are we even there? Throughout the process the teacher should be listening to the conversations taking place in the room so if the time does come guided questions can be asked.
    As Edna said this is not sink or swim.


  6. James Forsythe says:

    Teachers are often referred to as facilitators. I would hope we are not facilitating frustration, failure, or any other negative emotion. As others have mentioned, if we are not there to help, encourage and instill confidence then why are we there in the first place?

    Keep the learning and thinking moving along!


  7. Jeremy M. says:

    I’m not sure my colleague is thinking about leading the students to failure. I don’t think any teacher wants to students to totally fail. I think her intentions are to allow students to “figure it out” on their own. I agree that struggles and “failure” are a part of the process, but I also think that we need to visit what failure or level of failure we are actually talking about.


  8. James Forsythe says:

    Good point, she’s definitely not leading them to failure, but by not helping/supporting through the difficult parts she may indadvertedly be leading students down that path. Confidence is so important, and so to run into continued struggles in an inquiry process without support, I feel, does more harm than good. I guess I’m into avoiding negative emotions whenever possible. Inquiring is meant to be fun and interesting, and so if I can support a student to keep their inquiries fun and interesting than I will, rather than watch them become continually frustrated.
    Thanks for the post.


  9. Yes, inquiry is about the process, but it is a learned skill. As teachers we do have to guide, coach, model, step in, faciliate…Inquiry means we are more able to address the individual’s needs and therefore be more in a position to judge how their efforts and outcomes will affect them. We have to teach the students how to recognise this process so that they are not defeated by failure. So to begin with, we may have to step in and ‘spot’ the learner more often, but as they go through the process regularly, they will learn to recognise when they need that extra support and the different ways they can get it.


  10. disciullo says:

    I agree with what everyone has said here. I’m thinking of Vygotsky’s scaffolding – enough teacher support so learners don’t become frustrated and give up, but not so much support that learners become bored and give up. It’s about finding the almost magical amount of guidance to help learners get from where they were before to where they will be next.


  11. onnster says:

    Hi Jeremy,

    may I ask if your colleague gave the students any guidelines or questions they can ask themselves when they are stuck? Was this given before she let them loose? How long did this “free rein” lasts? Maybe you could give us a context so we can judge better if the ‘frustrating journey’ is too long?


  12. Miranda says:

    I once read that teachers working in an inquiry framework must have the ability to ask the right question of the right child at the right time (Shalveston, 1973: as cited in Calderhead, 1996). For me, this is the balance, its figuring out how to guide students promoting their own thinking to solve questions letting them work through “misconceptions” and acknowledge them as this but helping steer them back to making accurate meaning. Without abandoning students in the process we have to step back and consider how to help students construct meaning. The metaphor of scaffolding on a building- the building is being constructed by the construction workers and the teacher is their to support as and when needed.


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