Challenge Is Uncomfortable. Live With It.

Published by — Kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.


Speaking at the RIMA’s High Expectation’s Conference, keynote speaker Kate Gerson says, “The number one way we love our students is by rescuing them from struggle.  We hate and feel so uncomfortable with kids struggling.”

When you pose a challenge just out of a kid’s reach, she’s forced to think.  She’ll have to sort through what she already knows to come up with an educated, if not necessarily correct, answer.  The kid blinks at you, deer in the headlights.  You assure her she can figure it out, but the wait for her to wrestle through the problem is nerve-wracking.  Often we spare her the struggle and give her the answer, which she’ll never remember.  Had she dug around in her prior knowledge and figured it out — or even come up with a wrong but thoughtful solution — she’d have exercised her mind.

Gerson, teacher, principal and now CCSS Fellow with the NY Regents, explains that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) encourage just this kind of challenge.  They cover fewer topics, allowing time for a deeper understanding of each.  (CCSS offer clearly-written one-pagers about their philosophies about math and ELA that cut through a lot of the noise generated by the media.)

Gerson distinguishes between “productive struggle and toxic struggle.”

Productive struggle is about thinking.  By protecting kids from thinking, we accidently produce toxic struggle.  She gives the example that when high schools set low standards in order to improve their graduation rates, they “send more kids to college who aren’t ready, and those kids take more remedial courses, grow debt and don’t finish.”  The easy standards gave those students a false sense of their own mastery.  Then they hit a wall.  That’s toxic struggle.  If they’d learned to persist at hard tasks early, they’d have a sense of self-mastery and confidence that pushing themselves will pay off.

The Standards are big, broad, and now under fierce attack, even though few people know much about them, including most of their attackers.  I too have my issues with certain specifics, but on the whole, they challenge American education in a healthy way.  Gerson says, “The CCSS demand that every single student gets smarter.  This is something they can achieve when you slow down, unpack what you’re doing, and get intentional about how it’s done.”

Most current curricula are a mile wide and a centimeter thick.

CCSS are designed to help students analyze texts so they can understand them, not merely pick out bytes of information.  Ten correct facts do not add up to comprehension.  Gerson sees “students who know what you [the teacher] are looking for, so they know what words you want them to use.  But do they actually get what’s going on?”

As a high school English teacher, Gerson all but danced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to convey her own passion for the book to her students.  She looks back now and realizes that likely they remember only her performance.  They engaged with her, not the book.  She didn’t have them dig into the historical period or the political conflicts.  They didn’t have enough background to comprehend what the book was saying.

Such books are demanding.  Many teachers who are not natural performers turn instead to easier, “high-interest” literature, like Harry Potter.  Reading for pleasure is great.  But during the school day, the kids need to be working on materials that are out of their comfort zones.

Figuring stuff out for oneself is the definition of smart.

Math is similar.  Teachers tend to model how to do the problem; kids practice.  Little to no thinking.  Teachers feel they can’t take time to allow kids to wrestle their way to an answer.  But no matter where they start, such struggle makes them smarter.

As teachers, “we were taught to explain things to students over and over again.  So now we need to unbraid wrong answers, and do so publicly.”  I love that.  Don’t just let the wrong answer be Wrong, but unpack it.  Where did the kid’s thinking go wrong?  And even better is teaching publicly.  Bleeding red ink on a paper or quiz is a ton of work for a teacher and does not get the kid invested in the intellectual puzzle at hand.  No one wants to humiliate a kid in front of a class.  But having students see each others’ thinking, right and wrong, is far more instructive than letting them blow off a teacher’s red-inked corrections.  Learning publically helps kids be more thoughtful.  Rich thinking is a better goal of education than acquiring a canon of right answers.

Honestly, I think kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.  Achieving mastery with intellectual persistence is an acquired taste that needs to start early.  They can’t be lured into education the way they’re lured into the media.

CCSS is a complicated subject; Gerson did a good job.

[Photo: Christine Lopes Metcalf]

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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