As indicated by the subtitle, Who’s Doing the Work? is about teachers saying less so students can do more. That piques a lot of curiosity. People wonder about what it means to “say less so students can do more” and while it is nuanced in many ways, in simplest terms, it means this: letting students struggle a bit.
Letting students struggle a bit is not a novel idea. Any parent who has ever taught a child to tie shoes or ride a bicycle knows that struggle is important to success. However, as teachers, letting go and allowing children to muck around a bit in their dissonance is not as easy. We wrestle with a paradoxical inner narrative around knowing that we need to let them struggle in order to learn but worrying that, if we let them struggle too much, children will become frustrated and quit trying. The story in our heads tells us that we will be the one responsible for shutting a child down, which is more than our kind-hearted, child-loving, committed-to-learning brains can bear. Our brains are fascinating organs and while this interesting little tale it tells us, we have to challenge it and ask, “Is this true?”
Recently, Kim worked with a struggling fourth-grade girl reading a level H-ish book about a boy who loved to play music. When the girl arrived at a word that was difficult for her, she paused and looked at Kim. Kim smiled and said, “Why are you looking at me?” That was the only cue the girl needed to look back at the word–cymbal–and try something.
She started to talk out loud. She looked at the illustration of several types of instruments below the text and said, “I know it’s not ‘drum.’”
She paused to think some more.
“I know it’s not’ tambourine’…or ‘triangle.’”
Each time she made one of these declarations, she looked between the illustration and the word on the page. Then she placed her finger on the cymbal in the picture and paused. Kim could tell that she couldn’t quite remember the name of that instrument, but rather than look at Kim and ask, “What’s that called?”, she looked at the illustration and back up at the word and back at the illustration. Very confidently she announced, “It’s cymbal. That word is cymbal.”
During this exchange, the “kindhearted, child-loving” part of Kim had to resist her urge to place her finger beneath the word, talk about soft-c, and coach her on how to sound it out. However, the “committed-to-learning” part of Kim trusted that she would recognize if the child was struggling too much struggle and let this her work through the tricky part. The result? A fourth- grade girl surprised by her own power, beaming with pride, propelled to try more and act agentively in the next encounter with a tricky part of a text.
For us, there is no greater feeling than the one we get when watching a learner become empowered–we call these goosebump moments–and we find that when we apply the principles from Who’s Doing the Work, we get a lot them. When our brains threaten us with that old story about disenfranchising learners with too much struggle, we laugh because what we’ve learned is exactly the opposite–nothing builds confidence more than the success that comes on the other side of struggle.