Rethinking how I balance struggle and flow in teaching and learning

Last winter I sat around the kitchen with my niece and nephew, eating snacks and playing our version of scattergories; they are twins and enjoyed second grade this year.  We didn’t write anything down but one of us would pick a category and collectively we’d all come up with as many answers as we could until we all “gave up”, at which point we would ask Google to help us fill in the gaps.  We love these kinds of games and it takes us a long time to give up, so oftentimes if one of us comes up with another answer several days later, we can’t wait to tell the others.  We use our collective memory to figure out if we’ve used that answer already and we have a good laugh when we find a new one we hadn’t thought of earlier.  We also accept all answers if we can explain (and convince the others) why an answer is appropriate for that category.  This is usually the point where we go off on a tangent about other related topics before winding our way back to our “game”.  As much as the twins love their toys and playing outside, they enjoy these group thinking games because we all play together (sometimes with my brothers too), I don’t let them beat me, and our games last for days or weeks.

I think it is important for students to be challenged AND to enjoy the process of figuring things out for themselves.  If for any reason, it’s empowering to arrive at an answer, process, or solution through your own thinking, reasoning, and experimenting.  However, not every student will feel empowered after struggling to figure something out; they might feel discouraged about the entire experience and avoid difficulty or challenges moving forward.  If I make it a habit to bail my students out of a challenging learning situation, I’m not giving them an opportunity to come up with their own process and I’m placing more value on time, efficiency, and “doing things the same way every time”.

What do you do when you hear students ask, “Can I get a hint?”, “Am I doing this right?”, or “Do you think this will be okay?”  I’ll admit, I struggle sometimes with seeing students becoming frustrated when they hit a road block; sometimes this occurs, the moment they begin, other times it’s a crucial point in their project and it’s a “sink or swim” situation.  My usual strategy to help them hurdle the challenge is to have them first ask themselves, ask others, then ask me.  I believe it’s important for any student to practice Habits of Mind (Costa & Kallick, 2000) and to be self-aware of their metacognitive process.  Asking themselves first to review what their initial intent, predictions, or objectives were in solving a problem; what route did they take, was their something they did that could be changed or improved and where are they seeing a disconnect to a solution.  Asking others helps them get an outside perspective from a peer who is “struggling” in a similar situation and to pool their knowledge, understandings, and resources to examine the situation.  Asking me, usually means they tell me what they tried on their own, what they tried with others, and to discuss what our sources could shed light on the situation.  I’m sure you’ve all had students approach you to ask a question, and in explaining their confusion or their thought process, they realized their own answer and rushed back to their work because they’ve figured it out!

Martinez and Stager (2013) have challenged us to reflect on the processes and procedures that we put in place within a learning environment to give cohesion to our teaching.  They point out that checklists and steps in the scientific process essentially give students the impression that real-world problems can be solved by following a procedure of thought.  At the same time, we also have students examine the lives of individuals throughout history who stumbled onto great discoveries through messy processes, by accident, or in trying to solve an entirely different problem.  Instead, Martinez and Stager (2013) propose a much simpler design model than those used in the business and design industries; the Think-Make-Improve (TMI) model “minimizes talking and maximizes doing” (p. 52).   I found it an interesting challenge to think about planning a unit or activity utilizing the TMI design model and examining what kind of learning shift would take place if students were given a simple and flexible model for problem-solving.  In Williamson’s foreward shared by Strauss (2015), to the series of essays which were written and peer reviewed by biology teachers across the country,  he writes,

“This topic of struggle represents a very delicate balance between conflicting forces in the classroom. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has captured the essence of this challenge in his studies on ‘Flow.'”

(retrieved from, March 8, 2015)  (Strauss, 2015, para 11).

When I saw this diagram, I could immediately think of students all across the spectrum, never at the same time, on the same day, but rather fluctuating across these levels.  Students do not only react to the learning environment but everything that occurs before and after the classroom time.   Teachers are constantly working to differentiate the level of challenge that is appropriate for each learner.  In an out-of-school time setting, I am fortunate to enjoy a higher degree of flexibility.  It’s not easier, just different; I am always observing and thinking on my feet because it’s usually when my well-planned (over planned) activities get turned upside down that I know students are taking ownership over the learning and I’ve gotten better at “letting go” and becoming a better learning guide through the process.  I don’t assign grades although I do use formative assessments to help me monitor student progress towards learning objectives.  And I work at measuring outcomes that can seem intangible because there isn’t always a “product” that is created but rather an experience that is documented.  If we can embrace “failing” and struggle in our process to become better educators, I know that can only improve the learning experience for our students!


Costa, A.L. and Kallick, B.  (2000).  Habits of Mind:  A Developmental Series.  [adapted].  Retrieved from:

Martinez, S. L. and Stager, G. S.  (2013).  Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance:  Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Strauss, V.  (2015).  What is the value of letting students struggle in class? Teachers answer.  The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

2 thoughts on “Rethinking how I balance struggle and flow in teaching and learning

  1. In reading your post, I can tell that we had similar lines of thinking on this question. Two points stuck out to me that I wanted to comment on. First, I’m impressed that you’ve set up a routine for students of checking in with themselves, other students, and THEN you when they need help with their work. What really impressed me, and what I struggle with in my classroom, is that your students are able to articulate their thoughts and student interactions to you. In my classroom, I often encounter students who can do the work, but can’t put their thoughts or process into words. Even watching students interact with one another, I see that those kids that, “get it,” have trouble finding the words to explain to their peers that don’t get it. This often leads to them giving out answers, rather than giving help or advice. I hope that I can help my students get to a place where they can find the appropriate words to communicate their thoughts to each other and to me.

    The other point is something you mentioned in passing, that I think is very important and deserves consideration. You said, “Students do not only react to the learning environment but everything that occurs before and after the classroom time.” This year I completed a webinar series on adverse childhood experiences. The webinar looked at childhood trauma and how it impacts student learning. Childhood trauma is not just a reality for one specific socioeconomic or ethnic group. Childhood trauma happens everywhere and impacts a surprising number of youth. Students who face chronic, toxic stress in their lives tend to operate in a state of constant, fight, flight, or freeze, which leads to all sorts of academic and behavioral problems. A big part of the discussion about childhood trauma and trauma-informed schools deals with resilience. Resilience is aimed at cultivating in students an ability to cope with stress and trauma. A lot of the conversation about resilience reminds me of the talk about “grit,” in some of this week’s reading. Both have to do with giving students the tools they need to find it in themselves to persevere no matter the odds. If you’re interested in learning more, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has some great resources available:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I’m glad you commented about that (trauma, stress, and resilience), sometimes when I’m writing I’m not able to go in depth in my blogs because I go off in a very different tangent and I start writing a miniseries 🙂 I’ve mainly worked with students who come from low-income families, often English is a second language, and most of the time, my students are trying to be the first in their family to go to college. You’re absolutely right, trauma is not unique to this demographic of students and often we are so focused on what will take place within our classroom that we can miss the signs of what students are experiencing before they get to us. Maybe it’s the idea that my program is not school, there are no grades, and pretty much no wrong answers, that makes it easier for students to look to each other for help and share ideas. I also walk around observing and listening to conversations; I always ask for clarification and then summarize my understanding of what they shared before moving on – this allows them to let me know if I “got it right” and gives them a language or vocabulary to articulate their work. It doesn’t happen overnight but it works well when we’ve established this group learning dynamic where I learn just as much as the students! Thanks for sharing the resource!


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