October 3, 2015

Weak-Willed and Risk-Averse: STEMming the Tide of Fragile Cowards

Baby or college student?
Professors suggest there isn't much difference.

Recently, several articles have been popping up (like this one) in which colleges or employers decry the lack of resilience in their adult students or employees. Years of ever-increasing helicopter parenting and unconditional self-esteem building has resulted in adults so shielded from any sort of unpleasantness that they are defenseless to handle disappointments in the real world.  Their fragile psyches buckle under the pressure of even perceived failure (getting a B or C), as they have developed neither the experience nor tools to persevere.

Most teachers would agree that we want our students to become well-adjusted adults who are:
  •       capable
  •       confident
  •       risk-takers
  •       creative, critical thinkers
  •       tough enough to persevere in the face of adversity

Yet our practices often undermine these goals. We see students struggling and we “help” them too much, sending a silent message that they need outside help to solve their problems.  Sometimes we are running low on time, so a shortcut is taken. With the best of intentions, we inadvertently cripple our students’ growth.  I say “we” and “our” because I have absolutely been guilty of these things, and I know I am not alone, or colleges wouldn’t be sounding the alarm bell.  So what can be done? 

The most important thing we must do is stop making failure the monster under the bed to be avoided at all costs.  Any successful person knows failure is a necessary step to great success.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.- Theodore Roosevelt

Using STEM and other types of design challenges has gone a long way in helping me make failure less scary and build perseverance in students.  These challenges reward creative solutions and often require students to work through iterations and obstacles to achieve goals.  Iterations are crucial! Iterations give students multiple opportunities over a sometimes extended period of time and reflection.  If you do a search on failure quotes, you’ll find several claiming you only fail if you stop trying.

STEM challenges are also good practice for teachers to learn to strike the right balance between being supportive and being a crutch. It takes practice and resolve to watch students struggle and be supportive without solving their problems for them.  Beyond that, it takes time and patience! Students need far more time and space to solve a problem without your directives/assistance, but the benefit of them reaching that goal on their own pays far better dividends.  

I’m not suggesting you ignore their pleas, but that you learn to not lead them to answers.  I have found three approaches usually work for me:

  1. Ask questions (not too leading) about their designs (i.e., what they’re trying to do, what the problem is, what they’ve already tried, what haven’t you tried yet, etc.) Your questions should provoke their analysis.  In the absence of you providing solutions and ideas, students learn to generate their own.    
  2. Validate that it’s totally normal to get stuck and feel frustrated.  Tell them some things you do when you get frustrated to help you calm down and return to the task.  Sometimes just having a calm conversation for a moment about anything other than the challenge helps.
  3. Encourage them. Tell them that sometimes it takes time, but an idea will always present itself if you keep trying, thinking, and you don’t give up.

I recently did a Card Tower STEM Challenge with a group of second graders.  In the first iteration, students had some success and some failure.  All were able to measure their towers with 12-inch rulers.  After we shared our designs/results and had a discussion, we tried a second iteration.  Several groups needed to use a tape measure to measure their new designs, which was exhilarating.  The energy in the classroom was positively electric.  As you can see in the photo below, students took a lot of pride in their work, because it was their work.

Don't worry, we covered using the tape
measure properly after the picture!
I won’t lie – some tears were shed.  There were bumpy patches, but every single group did as well or better on the second round of card towers. As part of the post-build discussion, they were asked what they thought the point was of doing this challenge.   One of the first answers given (and this was their first STEM challenge – at least with me) was to learn to keep trying when things are hard. For me, this was a hugely successful day!

Our goal is not to set everything right for students at the end of the half hour sitcom. We know life doesn’t work that way, so there is no point in grooming them to expect it.  Our students are better-served when we create opportunities for them to develop the tools to encounter frustration and failure and work through it. 

Using STEM Challenges puts us on the path to solving the resiliency crisis facing colleges today. Remember, sometimes the best way to help is not to help.

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Photo Credits:

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/55933740@N06/12260343885">Tears</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/">(license)</a>

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/25661863@N00/5648885597">memorize</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

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