Getting Out of the Way of Learning

I have learned from implementing design teams with students the importance of stepping back and letting students learn for themselves.  Some teachers think of this more in terms of letting go of control. I think of it more in terms of getting out of the way.


John Hunter was my first teacher in this regard. As he calmly guides his charges through his ingenious teaching tool, the World Peace Game, he’ll advise, “That looks like a really tough problem. What are you going to do to solve it? I know it’s hard, but I really believe you can do it.” I used his mantra throughout the pilot project of student design teams my science colleague and I inaugurated with our fifth-graders last year.

I’ve also learned to let my students take wrong turns, struggle with overwhelming topics, and fail.  Even when my impulse is to swoop in and provide an answer, I’ve learned I need to honor their hard work, help them understand what they’ve experienced, and set them on a new path.

Scott McLeod’s TED talk on “Extracurricular Empowerment” provides excellent advice for all of us who work with children. Instead of clearing the way for kids by taking away all the hard stuff and locking down their learning, we need think about ways to clear obstacles that hinder them.  McLeod makes a strong case for open Internet access and bringing the kind of technological empowerment students often have free access to at home into the controlled setting of schools.

Some of my favorite examples of students learning on their own are mentioned in McLeod’s talk. He lauds Martha Payne, author of the Never Seconds blog, who started out evaluating her school lunches and ended up drawing attention to children’s nutrition around the world. McLeod also pays tribute to Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, a science-oriented collection of videos about making everything from a lava lamp to paper rockets.

I would add to McLeod’s inspirational list these discoveries of my own: the marvelous family enterprise of Animation Chefs, 11-year-old Quinn Sheeran’s whimsical musical deodorant invention celebrated recently in Gizmodo and 19-year-old Doga Makiura’s TEDxYouth video about innovation based on his experiences trying to tackle starvation in Rwanda. These two latter examples, along with Sylvia’s awesome videos, formed the basis of a talk about innovation for the Student Design Teams project my science colleague and I are currently working on.

The Hard Stuff

Parents and teachers can play an important role in kids’ lives when they get out of the way.  We can tell our own stories of how we’ve struggled to learn, and how we’ve learned so much more as a result. We can listen and support young learners when they bump up against the hard work of learning. We can guide them back to a starting place and help them see what they’ve missed. We can offer our knowledge of tools or strategies that they might try. We can tell them that we believe in them and congratulate them on their resilience and effort as they put in the time and dedication and sweat that real learning requires.

Rethinking Frustration

This tweet from yesterday’s TEDxHouston lined up nicely with my recent thinking about how adults react when students struggle with the hard stuff of learning. Kristin Osterr says, “Most people give up too easily. We must recognize that frustration is just your brain trying to be lazy!” (I can’t wait for the video!)

I wonder how often adults cave when they see children are frustrated, just at the moment before a breakthrough in learning can occur. We see frustration as a problem to be cleared out of the way, rather than as part of a process towards growth and resilience, not to mention innovation.

We need to help students learn for the world they will inhabit. If there was ever a time when we didn’t have all the answers, it’s now. In this time of constant change, we need to see frustration as a step towards learning rather than as something that inhibits it.

Too often we adults, parents and teachers, let our own fears and frustrations — with new technologies (from devices to apps), new learning environments (online or blended learning), and new strategies for engagement (such as flipped teaching) take over, and we become the obstacles that stand in the way of learning. Instead, we need to honor the struggles to learn as part of the process and celebrate the steps toward mastery gained along the way.

Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser via Compfight cc

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


geoff stead

Great post, Susan. I try to use the same approach as a management / leadership style at work, and find the results differ wildly. Some people thrive and grow, while others really struggle. In thinking of your schools example, maybe they are the students who have got too comfortable with being told what to do.
Some never get beyond the plaintive wail of "please explain exactly what I need to do", while others manage to burst through that entrenched behaviour, learning new skills, and making discoveries that I could never have done myself.
Those who do manage are the super stars of our business. So, another good reason to follow your advice, in school!

Scott McLeod

Just wanted to say thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated!
'Honor the struggle' is a wonderful message, but it's also a difficult one in schools since any kind of struggle there is seen as a failure and an evaluation, not a necessary component of learning and improvement...

Susan Lucille Davis

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments. Teaching independent learning, I believe is one of the greatest challenges for teachers today. We need to partner with parents in this regard, and perhaps educate them about why it is so important. We also need to know more about students' cognitive facility with independent learning. My gut tells me that it's something they learn early in life and unlearn based on their interactions with adults. But I would love to know more about the science behind independent learning and cognitive development. Do you have any recommended reading on this subject?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.