Classroom Environment Part 3: Intellectually Inviting

When I went through my teacher training, back in the Pleistocene age, the hot trends were whole language (which I’m not going to discuss here) and self-esteem (which I am going to discuss here).

To promote self-esteem entire courses and curriculums were developed around helping kids feel good about themselves. There was a big focus on “leveling the playing field” and helping all kids feel successful by removing obstacles, challenges, and competition. This trend backfired (as so many do). It backfired first because kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for and they understand that some of them are obviously better at certain things than others. We didn’t trick them, but we did take the fun out of a lot of stuff. It also backfired by creating a classroom mentality where “hard” is equated with “bad.” Kids started to think that if they didn’t understand an idea or succeed with a task on the first try then something was wrong. If they had to work hard at something, they must not be very smart. Suddenly they didn’t feel very good about themselves.

We know (now) that one of the ways people gain healthy self-esteem is through productive struggle: overcoming a challenge, learning a new skill, birthing an idea. Productive struggle is also the only way people get smarter, stronger, faster, and better at anything. It’s that extra set of weight-lifting reps that may feel like it’s going to kill us in the short term that actually builds our capacity and strength in the long term.

To create an intellectually inviting classroom is to embrace productive struggle. This calls for a classroom culture, where hard is good. In thinking about English Language Arts and the selection of texts, we used to aim for texts that students would “get.” We didn’t want them to feel frustrated and lose motivation. However, if we want to invite productive struggle and intellectual engagement, we need to choose texts that cause students to throw up their hands and shake their heads—otherwise there is no place to go, nothing to learn, and no real work to be done with that text.

The feared frustration is only born of false expectations when students believe they’re supposed to “get it” right away. If our classroom environment is built around the idea that “you’re not supposed to get it right away. This is a text that requires multiple readings and multiple discussions understand. That’s how we get smarter,” and “hard is good” then students embrace the struggle…and they get smarter, and they feel great about themselves.

The response to the lament, “Teacher, this is haaaard,” becomes, “I know! Isn’t it great? It’s supposed to be hard. This is going to give us a chance to really grow. What would be the point of doing something easy?”

In our Dealing With Difficulty series (grades 6-12), we refer to Mariolina Salvatori’s essay “Difficulty: The Great Educational Divide.”

Salvatori writes that when she asked her college students to show her moments in a text that they thought were difficult, she realized that “the moments they identified were difficult. They were ‘bumping into’ linguistic, structural, or factual elements that a reader must engage in order to come to an understanding of a text” (p. 85 emphasis added). The challenge, she found, was in helping her students “learn to see that their difficulties were not a sign of inadequacy but markers of a particular kind of understanding, reflecting a set of assumptions that might have been inadequate to the present task, or misplaced.”

In an intellectually inviting classroom difficulties are things to identify, moments to work with, and the beginnings of understanding. And bonus! An intellectually inviting classroom promotes self-esteem.

Watch for an upcoming post where we will continue to ruminate on building an intellectually inviting classroom by relinquishing “the right answer.”

Check out the other posts in this series!

Classroom Environment – Part 1
Classroom Environment – Part 2
Classroom Environment – Part 3
Classroom Environment – Part 4