A Journey Through Technology

Week 3: To what extent should we allow students to figure things out for themselves?

on June 2, 2017

I teach high school chemistry, and on a daily basis I see students struggle. Maybe they don’t have enough background knowledge to make connections in a topic, or maybe their just don’t understand what is going on. I distinctly remember struggling in my upper-level chemistry classes in college when the content got too complicated for me to easily grasp. At this point, what should students do? Throw in the towel and raise the white flag? While some may choose this option, a better choice would be to keep on trying and go to additional resources for help. “Students who are less likely to give up are more likely to learn.” So many times I see students give up so easily when they encounter a problem they can’t solve, even if the tools they need are only a little beyond their reach. I rarely see students going beyond the basics when trying to solve a problem in class, and I think if they were to reach more.

But what are students thinking about when they are struggling? Maybe if we can look more at how they are thinking and what they are thinking about, students struggling could be more useful in the classroom. “Tinkering gives deep clues to a patient observer about thinking.” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, Kindle location 1066) Allowing students to tinker in class could lead us to understand how they are thinking, which could help us decode their struggles in class.

One way to encourage students to struggle in class is to stop giving them a rigid series of steps to follow. In science, we teach students about the scientific methods, which always seems to have set steps they must follow: observations, hypothesis, experiment, conclusions. “This is not science. Science is about wonder and risk and imagination, not checklists and memorization.” (Martinez & Stager, 2013, Kindle location 1100) Reading this passage really put my teaching of science into perspective. Why does chemistry need to be so rigid in how students explore the science? Does giving them a set series of steps to follow actually help them learn? Maybe leaving labs more open ended, encouraging them to struggle, is what my students actually need.


Berman, S. (2015) Letting kids struggle in class. Shared by Strauss, V. (2015) What is the value of letting students struggle in class? Teachers answer. Retrieved 5/31/17 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/21/what-is-the-value-of-letting-students-struggle-in-class-teachers-answer/?utm_term=.3984822c0fb1.

Martinez, S. & Stager, G. (2013). Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, And Engineering In The Classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press. Kindle Edition.


3 responses to “Week 3: To what extent should we allow students to figure things out for themselves?

  1. I remember times in college where I struggled but I knew how to stick with it and make it through the class. Many of the students I teach go to college and find that they have to figure out thing on their own in a way that they are not use to. If we can teach the students ahead of time how to do this then they will be better prepared for college.


  2. waclawskid says:

    You make an interesting point about students not putting a lot of effort into solving problems. Is this because you teach a traditional class, a school cultural issue or something else. Your example could be a piece of evidence that promotes letting students struggle.


  3. matical4263 says:

    Good blog entry. I too wonder why we keep teaching algorithms instead of understanding. Allow students to look for a way and a solution. We think we are helping them learn how to think like a scientist, but at what cost?


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