Warning: Discomfort May Lead To Learning

Chaos. That’s the way I would describe my first attempt at having my students try cooperative learning. Utter, complete chaos. Which came as a complete surprise to me at the time, because, after all, I had attended the training on cooperative learning and had done everything just the way I’d heard it explained!

Imagine my surprise when one group spent its time talking about the upcoming football game, another group had everyone working by themselves, while yet another group just let Krista do all the work. My class was out of control and, let’s face it, definitely NOT learning math. It was an uncomfortable moment for me because I was, right then, a complete failure and the kids knew it, and if anyone had walked into that room right then, they would have known it as well.

Thankfully, I didn’t let my discomfort at the dismal lesson failure dissuade me from trying again—but this time with a little more preparation and a lot of learning from my first mistake! It would have been easy to fall back into my comfort zone of teaching at the overhead, but I had a push from my mentor, who helped me reflect and learn from my first experience, make changes, and try again. Good news is I did get better—certainly not overnight, and certainly with many more uncomfortable moments, but I kept trying and changing until I found my new comfort zone.

I bring up my experience because it has been on my mind lately, since I am currently taking an Advanced Instructional Strategies course through The College of William and Mary as part of my doctoral studies. In my most recent reflection paper for the course, I commented on how certain educators featured in the documentary film Waiting for “Superman” shied away from those “uncomfortable moments” when they were asked to embrace and implement change:

The saddest part of the movie, besides the students who did not get in to their school of choice, was the fact that even when school districts recognize that change is needed, and try to implement curriculum and teaching that will help students, there is incredible resistance that prevents this change. The discomfort caused by having to change instructional practices, accountability, and beliefs is such a huge barrier that nothing changes.

Discomfort—a road block to creating classrooms where students of all different backgrounds and abilities are able to learn, succeed, and be engaged in their education. New instructional methods, new standards, and new expectations—all of these things are changes that take teachers out of their comfort zone. Change IS hard, change IS scary, and change requires work.  I had to work hard to make cooperative learning work in my class, and at times, that chaos was scary.

The new Common Core Standards are a change that evokes this discomfort in a lot of practitioners, and that worries me. I think these standards are powerful. Committing to the principals that underlie the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice is going to require a great deal of change and a great deal of discomfort. However, if the outcome is to create students who can reason, persevere, communicate, and construct viable arguments and conclusions, then isn’t the temporary discomfort we may feel as we learn and implement these mathematical practices worth it?

As Herbert Thelen discusses in his book, Education and the Human Quest (1960), significant learning is frequently accompanied by or impelled by discomfort. We hope that our students, when confronted by a new math concept, don’t give up in frustration, but struggle and persevere and work through their discomfort to reach understanding. Why not expect the same from ourselves? I struggled at times to learn how to use cooperative learning effectively, but eventually, while I may have still had kids talking about the football game, I also had them talking and doing mathematics in an engaging, collaborative way.

We are now confronted with the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. Rather than give up or continue with the same old practices, why not struggle and work through our discomfort and confusion if the end result is improved instructional practices that help our students reach their learning potential? I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that educational change is not about us, but about what’s best for students. If we can keep that as our focus, then maybe we can handle the discomfort and the extra work it might take to improve our instructional practices.

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