Think about…Productive Struggle

The next time you worry that your real world project is too complicated, messy, or complex for students ask yourself,  “Would simplifying this project be mother-robining?”

What’s mother-robin teaching?

Take look at this quotation from Critical Thinking Foundation Director, Dr. Richard Paul:

When we teach in “mother robin” fashion — trying to mentally chew up everything for our students so we can put it into their intellectual beaks to swallow — students tend to become, if I can slightly mix my metaphor, “Polly parrot” learners:

“I can’t understand anything unless you tell me exactly how and what to say and think. I need you to figure out everything for me. I shouldn’t have to do more than repeat what you or the textbook say.”

Unfortunately, the more students grow in this direction, the more teachers try to amplify their mother robin teaching to accommodate it.

To learn how to teach critically, teachers must abandon mother robin teaching and make every effort to discourage Polly parrot learning. To learn how to think critically, students must learn to shift to use reasoning as a pervasive tool of learning.

What is reasoning? Expressed most simply, it is the art of “figuring things out for yourself”. It begins when we, in effect, say to ourselves something like:

“Let’s see, how can I understand this? Is it to be understood on the model of this experience or that. Shall I think of it in this way or that? Let me see. Ah, I think I see. I It is just so… but, no, not exactly. Let me try again. Perhaps I can understand it from this point of view., by interpreting it thus. OK, now I think I am getting it. etc . . . ”

Very significant consequences follow from how students learn. The depth with which they understand anything is in direct proportion to the degree to which they have engaged in intellectual labor to figure it out for themselves.

This doesn’t mean you hand a second grader Macbeth and say “go”, but the other end of the spectrum is just as dangerous (and much harder to see).  So remember – there is learning in struggle and figuring it out means sometimes getting it wrong and starting over.  Just like the real world.  


Categories: Stage 4: Disciplinary Thinking

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3 replies

  1. This article made me smile. Let me explain.

    This week my 4th grade students needed to use Google maps to find the directions to Sutter’s Mill from our school. Our objective was to find directions online. Use the internet as an aid to writing. Demonstrated basic keyboarding skills and knowledge of computer terminology. Here’s the catch… I didn’t give them the directions to the park or how to find the address. All I did was show them how ‘cool’ Google maps is!

    On Monday our classroom had an agenda with 4 clearly written instructions on how to go about the tech item. All week I’m seeing students wonder and ask their neighbors softly, in the hopes that I would’t hear. “Where on earth is Sutter’s mill?” (insert smile)

    Now, it’s terribly difficult at times to watch them struggle. I want to rush in there and show them how, to look it up for them, to give them a clue and the darn address to make their lives a bit easier. I wanted to be the ‘polly parrot’, but I refused!

    Today, sitting on my desk are 8 completed maps. Early! The first early assignment for the year. I didn’t realize how engaged they were by the challenge. Clean instructions, positive expectations, a some productive struggle has made this lesson great.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share.


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