Struggle: an Essential Element of Learning

Wednesday 14 Aug 2019

In our Western society we can be quick to protect our children from struggles. It’s not easy to see children grapple with something to the point of frustration. However, when we see a child struggling with a problem and race in to save the day, we are robbing our children of the opportunity to persist through the struggle and experience the satisfaction of having accomplished something difficult. We are also robbing our children of the opportunity to develop emotional fortitude and skills in perseverance through adversity that will serve them well later in life. We are teaching our children that struggle is a concept we should avoid in life when, in fact, struggle is a concept they will inevitably experience and need to work through on their road to success in adulthood.

In most Eastern schools it’s accepted that struggle is an important part of the learning process. Teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of their students so that students can experience struggle with something just outside of their reach. Students are given enough time to experience flow. In other words, they are given time to get into a ‘zone’ to truly grapple with a problem and journey through it to the end. The result? Students are more willing to accept that challenges are an innate part of life, and they develop the ability to face down challenges rather than run away from them.

Boston College’s Research Professor and author of Free to Learn, Peter Gray, explains that when we step back and let children experience growth through struggle, we are sending the following messages to children: ‘You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through your self-directed play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.

The more we realise struggle is not a bad thing – and the more we step back and let our children experience true struggle – the more likely we will see our children journey into successful adulthood equipped with resilience, stamina, determination, courage and emotional fortitude.

‘Remember, that every flower that ever bloomed had to go through a whole lot of dirt to get there!’ Mariela Delgado

‘If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.’ Carol Dweck

‘The people who achieve the most are those who are always pushing at the edge of their understanding.’ Jo Boaler

‘It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.’ Ann Landers

- Jane Mueller, Principal