Does “Experiencing Difficulties” Help With “Experiencing Success?”

I’m thinking right now of a discussion that I had about a month ago with an educator that I really admire. (I didn’t ask for his permission to use his name in this post, so I won’t, but I do want to share the conversation.) We were talking about how to best meet various student needs in the classroom, and during our discussion, he made a very important point. He said, “I think that this can be hard for many teachers because they’ve only had success in school. They’ve always learned things easily. They don’t know what it’s like to struggle.” This comment was not meant in a negative way at all, but instead, as a very important point about why it can sometimes be hard to differentiate. We haven’t always felt for ourselves what some of our students feel: what it’s like not to be able to do something.

I’m reflecting on this conversation now because today, my student teacher is introducing a new topic in math: nets. I’ll admit that when we first sat down to plan these lessons together, I had to breathe deeply (numerous times) not to hyperventilate. I love math, and I love teaching math, but this part of geometry terrifies me! As I’ve blogged about before, I have a non-verbal learning disability in visual spatial skills, and geometry (particularly the topics of nets and transformations) is a struggle for me. But when it comes to teaching, struggling can be a good thing! When we were discussing this unit, my own difficulties helped both my student teacher and me identify the areas that may be problematic for students:

  • seeing how the nets form into prisms and pyramids.
  • knowing how to take a three-dimensional figure and make a two-dimensional net.

This allowed us to plan differently.

  • We looked at bringing in some boxes that can be unfolded and folded back up again to see the connection between the two-dimensional nets and the three-dimensional figures.
  • We looked at starting with cut-out nets that had some problems with them (e.g., incorrect measurements, flaps not included), and using these as a starting point for students creating their own.
  • We differentiated the lesson by providing additional opportunities for students to work in various ways with the two-dimensional nets (if they need the extra time) or for students to move onto creating their own nets from three-dimensional figures (if they don’t need this extra step).

As we were finalizing our plans yesterday, my student teacher said to me, “Aviva, I find it so helpful to hear from someone that does struggle with this, as it’s something that comes easily to me. I didn’t realize how others might find it hard. Now, I can plan for all of the students.” And it was my student teacher’s comment that took me back to the conversation I had about a month ago: it’s hard to remember about those that do struggle if you’ve never experienced this feeling before.

These struggling students can be incredibly successful though with the right accommodations in place. We just need to figure out these accommodations. How do we do so though when we can’t always relate to what the students are experiencing? What methods/approaches have you used? I’d love to hear, for while I might be able to understand the students that struggle in these visual spatial areas, I know that I don’t have this same connection to all areas of the curriculum. I wonder if this connection is really the important link to differentiated instruction and success for all!


4 thoughts on “Does “Experiencing Difficulties” Help With “Experiencing Success?”

  1. Aviva, very valid point. I think it’s why it’s so important to think about the learning path of our students. From the lowest point to the highest what pathways will they use to get to the final outcome. It’s funny we do this in language a lot (pm benchmarks, alpha kids, first steps, ESL stages, etc) but when it comes to math we just jump right into the abstract and forget all about how students or us actually conceive(d) the concept. Learning trajectories help us differientiate, ask guiding questions and anticipate the big ideas that will happen. When teaching through inquiry it is the fundamental component of successful lesson and one that bombs. However, the question is how do we make, use or find these trajectories. Personally, it has been actually studying about the subject. I have read so much in mathematics (and now turning to language) that I can know make my own but for those that don’t have the time there are many out there. Fosnot has been a great help in this area. However, I also think in our planning we can make some small ones just by thinking about our students and how they would actually learn or see the concept being presented. What problems might they have, what successes, and what questions can I ask? All helpful.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan! You make such great points here! I love your idea on talking about students: in terms of their needs and what we can do to assist them. The Grade 5’s at our school often have team meetings. We usually talk about plans for teaching, but to coincide with that, during our next meeting, I’m going to see if we can have some of this student talk. I wonder if this would help all of us differentiate a little bit more.


  2. Yes, I think putting yourself into your learner’s shoes is truly the key. It’s informed instruction and Assessment for learning related to your learning goals and big understandings and each Learner’s goals are clear and transparent to all. Climate for learning is the umbrella for all success. Aviva your students are so involved in learning, questioning, and purposeful talk – that is the beauty of the learning; messy but authentic. We always ensure that all stakeholders know and live by my mantra; “There are no mistakes only learning opportunities.” It provides the safe inclusive environment needed for learning.
    I like to use the KWL format, Minds ON; Start with what we know. What questions do we have? What did we learn? I love the different versions like KWD; What do we know, What do we need to; ie. what questions do we have? What do we need to Do?

    • Thanks for the comment, Nancy! I love these KWL formats as well, and I think that they’re great for all learners. Each learner can start with what he/she already knows, and then figure out where to go next. A great suggestion!


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