219. Too Hard?

I work with Paul Oh, a teacher who believes, among other things, in children’s ability to solve math problems. One day, he asked children to try to find ways to form certain shapes using Tangrams, an ancient Chinese puzzle. The children worked in pairs, with adult support. Some quickly became frustrated, and the frustration built, so that even children who usually loved math challenges started giving up.
But Paul didn’t give up. Sometimes a concept or task is actually too difficult for children, but Paul was not ready to quit on this one. He gave a short speech expressing his disappointment that children were so quick to decide that they couldn’t do it. I watched some children’s faces, and saw that his speech had inspired not guilt, but determination to give it another try. They seem to respect him, and see him as an ally in the quest for increased skill.
The next day, Paul came in with a different approach. He had decided that children had been approaching the task as they sometimes approached computation – as a search for the “right answer.” While teachers often try to emphasize the thought processes involved in computation, there usually is a right answer waiting at the end, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and children tend to see that answer, not the thought process, as the goal. Rather than ask, “What do you think of the way I solved this problem?”, they just want to know whether the answer is right.
Paul asked them to experiment with the Tangrams – to move the shapes around and see what they discovered. What followed were about twenty minutes of experimentation. The mood in the class was very different as they played with the shapes. Children were excited as they found ways to solve these geometrical problems. Without the “right answer” as a spectre, they were free to explore. When a child did discover a solution, occasionally another child came over to copy the solution, but the atmosphere was one of collegiality and fun; the copying still involved mathematical thinking, and seemed more like peer tutoring than cheating.
When a teacher tells children that a task is not too hard, children may think, “That’s easy for you to say.” But Paul’s message to these children conveyed a blend of patience, caring, and confidence. He had thought about the task, evaluated and reconsidered his own teaching strategy. Modelling determination, he had refused to throw in the towel. It was inspiring.
Sometimes a concept or task really is too hard for children. Sometimes it’s too hard for some, but not for others. But when children are taught with the calm, patient confidence Paul Oh conveys, they have more of a tendency to hang in there, and more of a tendency to succeed.

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