Embracing Difficulties

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I just finished up chapter four in Making it Stick.  Parts of the chapter involve the topic of challenge and how it impacts memory.  Looking back at my K-12 experience, what I remember is often associated to how I felt during the experience.  The best experiences for me required an extensive amount of effort and perseverance that eventually led to a productive outcome.  Some of the more challenging experiences were also memorable.  I learned from both those positive and negative outcomes. It’s interesting that the experiences that I remember were either positive or negative.  I don’t have many so-so memories during school – they don’t stand out.

Chapter four emphasizes how difficulty can help students retain information for longer periods of time.  I’m going to interchange the terms difficulty and challenge for this post. Challenge triggers retrieval processes and encourages students to make connections to find a solution.  This is often termed “desirable difficulties” by the Bjorks.  Chapter four discusses the importance of generative learning.  Basically, generative learning places students in a situation where they solve problems without being explicit taught how to solve them.  Students are required to make connections and generate answers without repeating a process that was clearly taught by a teacher.  The responsibility is on the students to generate a solution.  When I first read this I wasn’t exactly sure about this idea.  I work with mostly elementary math students and some want to know exactly what and how to complete a task.  If they’re unsure students might say “you never taught us ______.” It takes a shift in mindset to take a risk and generate solutions based on prior knowledge.  In the end students might be absolutely right or wrong, but they took a risk and came up with a solution.  Praising the effort involved and reflecting on the journey is important.   When coming across open-ended tasks students need to understand that learning is a journey and challenge is part of that process.

Next year I’m planning on incorporating more opportunities for students to participate in generative learning.  I believe it first starts with creating an environment where students aren’t “spoon-fed the solution” and they have to think critically about the situation.  I find that students are more likely to check their answer for reasonableness with tasks like this.  That environment should encourage students to speak up, offer their ideas, use trial-and-error, make connections, and become aware that learning is a journey.  This culture and mindset takes time to build, but the dividends it pays throughout the year benefits all involved.

I’m staring to to take a look at next years plans. Currently there’s one task for each unit that’s designed for generative learning.  Sometimes I have students work on these tasks in groups, while other times it’s independent work.  These types of tasks are often open-ended and may have multiple solutions.  They also involve a hefty time commitment and can reach multiple math standards within one tasks.  Over the summer I’m planning on finding additional ideas using MARS and Illustrative Mathematics resources.

Next steps: At the end of each task I’d like to have a class conversation about the task.  Have a regular reflection component can bring additional connections.  I’m planning on continuing to have students journal about these experiences throughout the year.  I’m also hoping that these types of tasks translate into students being more willing to take additional ownership for creating and monitoring their math identities.

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