A piece earlier this month in The New York Times looking at research in how to maximize learning after the disruption of the pandemic examined the work of several educators -- and led to an interesting conclusion.
When students, especially students with learning challenges or those for whom teachers may have had historically low expectations, are not challenged, they do not get the depth of understanding that they would gain from strugging to master material. The article describes a number of ways of thinking about the process of struggling to learn material that can result in deeper learning and more complete understanding.
Some educators use the metaphor of a "learning pit", a place where students can visualize the fact that they need to ask for help, work on the material, and through serious effort eventually "climb out" of the learning pit to a place of understanding. This process encourages students to become "comfortable with being uncomfortable". Another metaphor that has been used when students are encouraged to work through their discomfort with not understanding a lesson or subject is that of learning to ride a bicycle. If a teacher holds firmly to the back of the bicycle while the student is learning to ride, the student avoids the "cognitive wobble" that requires them to think more deeply.
Dr. Manu Kapur, an educational psychologist whose meta-analysis of studies looked at how students learn best, found that simply teaching a topic was not the most effective method for achieving student mastery. Instead, students who had to struggle to solve problems before being taught precisely how to solve them learned better than when they were first taught a concept and then given a chance to practice it.
For this "productive failure" approach to work most effectively, students should work collectively and should know that the goal of the lesson isn't to get to a specific correct answer. In addition, the problems presented should be difficult but not impossible and should have a number of possible solutions.
All of the educators mentioned in the Times discussion noted that when work is too simple, and students do not have to struggle to understand and master material, they do not have the opportunity to deepen their learning. Especially now, when many students have been derailed by pandemic learning loss, it is important to make them aware that working hard, seeking help from their teachers and fellow students, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable can all contribute to better, deeper learning.