Is being ‘stuck’ a good thing?
When children say that they are ‘stuck’ then is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I’d say it’s actually both.
Being intellectually and cognitively challenged to the point where we think we can’t make progress or we just don’t understand a concept can be frustrating and in some cases paralysing.
But being ‘stuck’ has its merits.
In his book The Art Of Standing Out, Andrew Morrish calls this JOBS which stands for the Joy Of Being Stuck. He says,
When a child is stuck, they should embrace and celebrate this, for they are about to learn something new.
Of course, we have to catch children being stuck. They are never normally shy coming forward to tell us they are stuck (although many ‘silent’ learners do) but there will always be occasions that they will leave the classroom or vacate a lesson in a state of confusion because they haven’t got out of what James Nottingham calls the ‘learning pit‘. He’s developed a whole philosophy around it which he explains in the following animated video which is well worth a look.
Spend too being stuck is not a state children like to be in though as they can soon get frustrated and disillusioned. We have to act fast to scaffold and support….or, we don’t act fast and we allow children to climb out their pit using their own resources or with the help of their peers or all three. Children need to know that they can get ‘unstuck’.
Some teachers make sure that their class ‘get stuck’ all the time. They deliberately plan for children to ‘get stuck’ and intentionally select activities that will create cognitive conflict so they become great problem-solvers.
They do what Peter Johnston (2004) calls “normalising struggle” where the goal is for children to accept and embrace both challenge and failure as an opportunities to learn, develop and do better.
I really like what Kate Mills and Helyn Kim (2017) have to say on this struggle normalisation in relation to maths.
They say that having a problem-solving culture can “helps tie struggles to strategies so that the students will not only see value in working harder but in working smarter by trying new and different strategies and revising their process. In doing so, they will more successful the next time around.”
See the video they show about getting stuck – very funny and children will start to see being stuck rather differently.
Being stuck is good because it accepts and acknowledges that there are no quick fixes and that learning is a struggle and that’s quite normal.
But being stuck isn’t always what children like, accept or are used to as they can be “accustomed to automaticity” (Orlin, 2017)
Andrew Wiles expresses this in the following video. In case you’ve not heard of him, Andrew Wiles is actually a mathematical legend as he is most famous for proving Fermat’s last theorem, a problem that had been taunting mathematicians for centuries. Skip along to around 57 seconds and hear his views. He says,
Now what you have to handle when you start doing mathematics as an older child or as an adult is accepting this state of being stuck. People don’t get used to that. Some people find this very stressful. Even people who are very good at mathematics sometimes find this hard to get used to and they feel that’s where they’re failing. But it isn’t: it’s part of the process and you have to accept [and] learn to enjoy that process. Yes, you don’t understand [something at the moment] but you have faith that over time you will understand — you have to go through this.
Sometimes we become unstuck when we walk away from the challenge as our brain needs the time and space to breathe. Andrew says,
Then you have to stop, let your mind relax a bit and then come back to it. Somehow your subconscious is making connections and you start again, maybe the next afternoon, the next day, the next week even and sometimes it just comes back. Sometimes I put something down for a few months, I come back and it’s obvious. I can’t explain why. But you have to have the faith that that will come back. The way some people handle this is they work on several things at once and then they switch from one to another as they get stuck. I can’t do that. I get manic about it. Once I’m stuck on a problem I just can’t think about anything else. It’s more difficult. So I just take a little time off and then come back to it.
This perhaps makes us think about whether we expect too much from children – being stuck in a lesson is fine and actually being stuck when the lesson has finished is also fine. If our brains function more effectively after a break then perhaps we shouldn’t try to solve everything in 45-60 minutes. Let children stay stuck overnight and let them sleep on their challenges in order to make new connections.
The state of being stuck is the art of being stuck knowing that you will have the resilience, or what the Finns call the ‘Sisu’, to come out of it.
Sisu is determination in the face of adversity and that is what being stuck and becoming unstuck is all about.
In Finnish, Sisu is a mindset that means you’re never Finished. For children, in lessons then they can adopt a Sisu mindset and never give up but overcome their own adversity and ‘unstick’ themselves.