Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

02.08.14Dan Cotton on “I know this is difficult”

In this week’s video review meeting at TLaC Towers, we watched a strong teacher struggle through a common moment of teaching: She asked a series of thoughtful and demanding questions about a challenging text, but the result from her students wasn’t what she wanted. Precious few hands went up and silence descended. My colleague Dan Cotton offered this reflection:

Anyone who has taught has experienced this moment, and the likely string of internal questions that come flooding: Do they not understand this at all? Perhaps I didn’t provide enough scaffolding? Are they just not confident, not willing to take risks? In these moments of self-reflection, we often share bits of our thinking — intentionally or not — with our classes.  If we’re not attentive to those moments, they can undercut our culture and have the opposite effect from what we hope.

In this case, without a hand in the air, the teacher looked out across the classroom and said, “I know this is hard guys…” Her intention was probably a sort of tacit CFU. The data was clear and her words acknowledged that.  But there was something about that phrase that felt subtly corrosive, and we discussed the difference between saying, “I know this is difficult” and “This is difficult.” That difference reveals how our choice of words can promote or undercut a culture of perseverance and achievement in our classrooms.

Saying “this is difficult” emerges from a teacher’s analysis of the cognitive demands of the material, a response to and frame of that challenge as potentially positive. Saying, “I know this is difficult” is a response to students’ hesitancy, and potentially validates a set of sub-optimal responses — a bit of passivity, learned helplessness perhaps, some checking out in the face of difficulty. Message: It’s normal that you would react that way to difficulty. There’s also an unspoken second half of the sentence: “I know this is difficult guys … but I’d like you to try a bit more than this” or “but you don’t have to be like that about it.” 

Much has been written about the critical character trait of grit as a driver of long-term success. If we are going to cultivate grit in all our students, then they not only have to persevere through challenging material; they have to take delight in persevering. How do we cultivate joy in persevering? First, we have to make it clear for students what to do in the face of struggle (rather than validate learned helplessness). With clear guidance in place, we can consistently require students to take risks and experience being wrong so that getting something wrong becomes less frightening.

One of the hallmarks of great teachers is they anticipate the problems that are likely to arise and prepare their language so that their response, in the moment, is genuine and fluid.  Ideally, then, you’d anticipate the challenge in advance and narrate its normalcy, not the explanation for failure.  If not, and if your thoughtful questions unexpectedly produce ringing silence, try to respond with a phrase that tells students what to do in the face of a challenge and makes it clear that they must risk being wrong. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • “If you’re struggling, take 30 seconds to try to write. “
  • “I can see some of you are struggling, so I’m going to cold call and ask you to do your best.”
  • “I can see some of you are struggling. Let’s step back, and think about a more basic question first.”
  • “This one is a challenge. Take 30 seconds to re-read your notes and prepare an answer. Coming out, I’ll Cold Call.”
  • “I can see some of you are struggling.  Let me rephrase then Cold Call four or five of you to try again.  If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. So be it.”

Do other readers hear a difference between “This is difficult” and “I know this is difficult?” And how do you spark effort in the face of difficulty? Hope you’ll share your thoughts below.

2 Responses to “Dan Cotton on “I know this is difficult””

  1. Keith Miller
    February 8, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I’d say there’s certainly a difference, it seems to me that at the core of this post is a “Positive Framing” dilemma, that is, how exactly to positively frame a situation in which student participation is lacking during CFUs.

    I think following up “This IS difficult” with “these are the kind of questions you’ll be asked in high school and college and I want to prepare you. Let’s take 30 seconds to write, I’ll be cold calling to see what we came up with.” One note that comes to mind is that if you’re using printed notes students should probably have a box/lines to write in, making the preparation of these questions during the planning of the lesson essential.

  2. Mary Thomas
    February 8, 2014 at 11:33 pm

    This reminds me of Peter Johnston’s great book, Choice Words. It is so important to stop and consider the way our words affect our students but sometimes we fail to do that. Thanks for posting.

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