Challenge yourself. Challenge your students.

I signed up for a Toughmudder.  11 miles, 28 obstacles, and a predicted finishing time of 3 hours.  This will also be my first organized run longer than a 5k.  I can currently run about 5 miles.  I’ve got nine weeks to double my mileage.  I’m confident that I can do it, but talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.  Oh, and my team is full of personal trainers from my gym so I’m definitely feeling pressure to be highly prepared.  (Read: strong and fast.)

I haven’t done anything like this in a very long time – challenged myself to this extent.  I generally think I do a respectable job pushing myself to be my best whether it’s as a teacher, an athlete, or a human being.  Rarely, however, do I really give myself a big target that is multiple steps away from my current ability level.

My feelings about the Toughmudder made me think about my students because I immediately filled my head with doubts: “Can I run that far? Will I keep up? What did I get myself into?”

These questions and doubts are similar to what students face in school.  “Can I read that whole book?  Can I write a whole essay?  Will I pass the test?”  I get to choose my challenges while our students have to respond to the tasks we set for them.

When we stay within our comfort zones we get complacent, and I’ve been relatively complacent lately.  I can’t just wait nine weeks and then go complete this event.  I will need to use what I’ve learned about strength training for the obstacles and find new training methods for the distance running component.  This is the nature of true challenge.  What I’ve done in the past will not be sufficient so I have to learn new skills.

The educational concept of scaffolding is not new.  Nearly every training, meeting, or discussion I’ve had about struggling students at some points comes back to scaffolding.  (For the non-educators scaffolding is the idea that with proper support students can reach to things they would be otherwise unable to do.  Like how a scaffold lets you scale the side of a building.)  Scaffolding is everywhere in education, but students are still failing.  How does this relate to the Toughmudder?

For scaffolding to be meaningful students need to be challenged, and at some point the scaffold needs to be removed.  One of the common discussions around scaffolding that is all too common is the idea that “if this scaffold helps some students, then give it to everyone and help all students.”  This is problematic.  If we scaffold something that is not truly challenging we’ve done nothing but lower the standard.  The best measure of my success as a teacher would be whether my students are able to succeed at the skills I taught, once they leave my classroom, when there are no scaffolds in place.  Instead of scaffolding, we need training.

I fully acknowledge that students start in different places.  They have different reading levels, different writing ability, and unequal reasoning skills.  What is challenging for one student may be exceptionally easy for another.  However if we want our students to improve we need to provide challenge.  We need to take all of our students outside their comfort zones.

When students have a difficult task to complete (reading, writing, presentation, exam) they have to add new skills to their repertoire in order to be successful.  It is then our responsibility as teachers to teach the skills and content necessary to complete that task.  Before we put a scaffold in place we should identify whether a student has really put in their best effort.  Just because my first try to get over an obstacle isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean I need a ladder.  Perhaps I just need to take a different approach.  If we always provide a scaffold we are never really holding students to the standard we set out to achieve.

If we have standards for excellence and criteria for mastery that are based on what students need to know or be able to do, we should stick to our standards.  Those criteria were (hopefully) created with intentionality and hold some value beyond the classroom.  It is unreasonable to lower those criteria just because some students are unsuccessful.

I will do my absolute best to prepare myself for the Toughmudder in 9 weeks.  I signed up for a challenge and I will do what is necessary in order to be successful.  This attitude is precisely what is needed for students who want to be academically successful.  It takes just as much mental effort to log out of Facebook to go for a run as it does to log out of Facebook and write an essay.  Challenges are only overcome through hard work.  If it didn’t take hard work it wasn’t a challenge.

I encourage all teachers to try something difficult.  Step out of your comfort zones.  Learn new teaching methods.  Teach new classes.  Take risks in your personal life.  Whatever it is challenge yourself.  We are constantly asking our students to learn new ideas, try things they don’t like, and take on tasks that seem impossible.  How can we claim to understand our students if we never challenge ourselves and feel the difficulty, and satisfaction, of doing what you previously through to be impossible?

PS:  I started a second blog where I’m doing reviews of pop culture from the perspective of teachability.  Check it out.

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