Be honest — have you ever been profoundly irritated or disappointed in how quickly your students give up when things get tough during a STEM Challenge? Have you lamented their seeming inability to persevere and be resilient?
Been there. Done that!
You know what? Neither is particularly helpful in solving the problem! I’m guessing you knew that already.
If you’ve been on this site before, you know I’m always talking about truly challenging your students and limiting your use of “simple” STEM. This means you are very likely to run into this problem of students shutting down and giving up.
Here’s what I’ve realized over time:
Perseverance and determination are skills to be taught and practiced just the same as adding fractions with unlike denominators.
When you introduce adding fractions, you don’t just tell your students to add them up. And when they struggle or fail, you don’t keep telling them, “Just keep adding them up!” You show them how, right? You go through multiple methods to getting the job done. You find ways for them to practice and turn the abstract into something more concrete.
Yet, we often use the ineffective “tell them” approach with softer skills like perseverance. We say:
“Keep at it!”
Don’t give up!”
“Just keep trying!”
“Use your growth mindset!”
This is as useless as, “Just do your best to add those fractions, pal. You’ll figure it out eventually.”
And this is where our misstep is with many growth mindset skills: we talk the talk, but we don’t give students tools they need to understand how to walk the walk.
We need to do a few things to help students understand an practice what it looks like to persevere.
1. Recognize the Opportunity of Teachable Moments
I have been guilty in the past of treating student shutdown as an obstacle to the content standards I’m trying to teach. I’ve been agitated and fretted that we don’t have time for this! I’ve barked unhelpful phrases like, “You can’t just give up when something gets hard. Keep at it!”
What I’ve learned is that we need to treat life skills like perseverance with at least the same respect as teaching any content standard. If we can teach our students to keep working when things get hard, it will pay dividends in all subjects, all year long (and beyond).
2. Hold a Class Discussion About What Causes People to Want to Give Up
When students are ready to give up on a challenge, they’re usually at peak-frustration level. There’s often a lot of emotion going on. This is one reason our encouraging words often fall flat.
Take time to explore what is happening and what causes people to want to give up. Be curious and nonjudgmental throughout the discussion. Help students make sense of what’s going on in their minds when they want to give up.
3. Create a Procedure with Action Steps
What does it look like to persevere? How do we make the switch from emotional shutdown to positive action? Create a simple, doable procedure with your students to help them understand what positive action steps they can take the next time they’d rather just give up.
Understanding what actions would be helpful, and then actually taking those actions is the piece we often leave for our students to figure out on their own. We wouldn’t leave them in the dark with fractions; we shouldn’t do it with perseverance either.
Need some direction for leading a productive discussion on perseverance?
Want to know exactly what questions and follow-up questions to ask during the whole-class discussion?
Want an editable copy of the “Getting Un-Stuck” procedure poster I use?
Check out this 15 minute training that comes with the discussion notes and procedure poster:
Or grab the whole Growth Mindset in STEM Challenges Bundle: