Am I giving my students practice or problems?
If our answer to this question is practice, then we have a problem. When we show students how to do something new and then they do it, they are practicing and not problem-solving. Even if the skill could be rigorous, if we’ve already shown them how to do it, we just took the rigor right out of it.
On the ELA side, we’re a little luckier since students are always applying skills to a new text and so they can’t simply apply steps and get the correct answer. Where we go wrong, though, is that some of us try to simplify rigorous skills into simple steps which inadvertently pushes kids to narrow their thinking and expect to find an easy answer.
So what’s the solution?
If we want all students to participate in critical thinking and rigorously problem-solve, they need to see us do it. We can’t always come into class and demonstrate to them how to solve a problem that we’ve already solved, because then we’re just walking through the steps we took versus showing them what it looks like to solve a problem.
We have to model the struggle, not the steps.
Sometimes we need to step in front of the class with a rigorous problem that we’ve never seen before and try to solve it. In social studies or ELA, this means interpreting an excerpt of a text or document we haven’t seen before. We have to let them see us sweat. Sound scary? It is. The thought of putting an AP-level poem up and having the kids see me stumped for the first five minutes is terrifying. But guess what? Many of them are terrified when they sit down and look at a new problem, too. We make them more scared and less prepared when we always have the quick solution. If they have a chance to see us struggle, the idea of struggling and not knowing the answer will be less scary since they’ll know that that’s what rigorous thinking is all about. They’ll also see a more authentic model of how they might dig through the problem versus seeing the short & superficial version of how we solved it.
So give it a shot! You could even turn it into an event or competition with a fellow teacher where you join your classes and give each other problems to try to stump each other. Or where students try to find or come up with the hardest problems or texts they can. Don’t be afraid of not knowing the answer in front of your students and trying something new – their “world-class education” depends on it.