By: Caroline Mwendwa-Baker, Elementary School Principal; Penny Perrott, Physical Education Teacher; and Anya Rosenberg, Assistant Teacher

It’s Wednesday morning on a crisp day in early November and students in the Fourth Grade are getting ready for their weekly problem-based task in morning math.   The students begin in a whole group lesson to go over the complex math problem together.  Ms. Jessica, the class’ lead teacher, begins by reading the problem out-loud as students follow along and underline words and phrases that stand out to them. Once a basic level of understanding of the problem is reached, students spend five minutes of independent think time to fill out a Know/Wonder/Ideas (KWI) graphic organizer to share what they know about the problem, what they wonder about the problem, and any ideas they have for how to solve it.  Students then come together as a class and share their ideas to reach a deeper collective understanding.  When students share their ideas, Ms. Jessica, the class’ lead teacher, gives value to every students’ observations and summarizes their ideas to fit in the know/wonder/idea structure, physically filling out a large scale KWI on a chart paper at the front of the class.  This whole group lesson establishes clear and explicit structures and expectations for how to approach the problem, such as the expectation that every student create a clear model of their thinking.  By making the expectations and guidelines clear, students are set-up to grapple at a level that challenges their current understanding but won’t leave them frustrated.  The whole class KWI is created within the first 10 minutes of the lesson, and it remains at the front of the class for students to reference as they delve into their independent work. Minimal guidance about how to solve the problem is given, but many ideas are proposed and discussed.  Once in partnerships, the students begin to work through the problem together.  Using powerful language to express their thinking, students own their opinions and defend their approaches, but are malleable with their thinking so that they can grapple and engage in the challenging work together.

What is grappling?

Grappling is the process of persevering, thinking critically, analyzing data, and constructing an in-depth understanding when faced with a problem that does not have a clear path to a solution.   

Within the intentional community of learners at Two Rivers, we establish a culture of grappling within all aspects of our school culture.  Grappling appears in many forms in our community: whether it be Fourth Grade students working hard and challenging themselves with a complex mathematical problem-based task, Fifth Graders working through a complex text through partner reading, or a group of teachers and administrators coming up with strategies and best practices to institute new testing procedures.  In each of these cases, grappling looks like learners coming together, asking each other questions, sharing ideas, admitting confusions, and coming to new levels of shared understanding.  Grappling is admitting and being comfortable with the fact that the answer may not be instantly apparent; it is working hard and persevering through challenges to form answers and ideas.

What Does Grappling Do for Students?  

Grappling provides students opportunities to get comfortable making mistakes, taking risks, and feeling the great reward of challenging themselves to reach areas of unknown growth and academic adventure.   It is an indispensable component of a well-rounded educational experience, as it builds critical thinking skills and emotional stamina.  When students grapple with complex tasks on a daily basis, it becomes an attitude that students use to approach any and all tasks in and out of school. They tend to take every opportunity as a learning opportunity, and are willing to fail. It creates a higher order of thinking by investing students in the problems that they are trying to solve, often motivating students to learn more due to their involvement in the problem.

This is best illustrated in the work on cognitive mindsets.  Mindsets affect how students approach and persevere through a task.   Dr. Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation identifies two mindsets that students have about their intelligence– a growth mindset and a fixed mindset (Dweck 2008, 6).  Students who have a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is one that is already set; they see academic and emotional challenges, making mistakes and failure as threatening to their intelligence and thus avoid experiencing them.  This greatly affects their performance and success in the long run.  On the other hand, students who have a growth mindset believe that their intelligence is one that can continue to grow and develop through hard work, perseverance and mental stamina.  They embrace challenges, are not afraid to make mistakes as part of the learning process, and are lifelong learners.  These students know that they can grow their intelligence through grappling with challenging problems and taking academic risks. In order to create a culture where a growth mindset is the norm, students and teachers must grapple with complex tasks on a daily basis. 

Dr. Carol Dweck outlines the ways in which a growth mindset benefits students; particularly poignant is Dwecks’ data about how students with growth mindsets seek out opportunities to grow as learners and academic risk-takers. Students with a growth mindset exhibit a drive to learn from their mistakes and absorb knowledge from fellow learners, while those with fixed mindsets seek out tasks that confirm–and do not challenge–their pre-existing intelligence (Dweck 2008).

Building a Culture of Grappling

At Two Rivers, we spend the first weeks of the school year working on creating a shared language of grappling. We explicitly name it for students as “grappling;” and discuss why grappling is an important part of our learning community. We set high expectations for all of the tasks that students partake in and make it explicit that our expectations are high because we want students to challenge themselves, make mistakes, and take risks–and because we know that they are capable of the challenge.  We praise students for putting in their best effort and making mistakes, and we intentionally and explicitly establish making mistakes as an integral part of the learning process.

As displayed in Ms. Jessica’s Fourth Grade class as they struggled with their problem-based Task, as teachers and community members, we work to engrain grappling and language of the Growth Mindset into our classrooms and our school community.  As teachers observe and assist with student work, we praise our students for “working hard” and putting in their best effort in addition to assessing the quality of final products. We recognize that academic risk taking will yield mistakes, but this does not detract from our expectations for high-quality products; we hold our students to rigorous standards for completing their work, and provide opportunities for critique and feedback when these expectations are not met. We veer away from language that stresses “smartness” as an inherent trait and instead employ language that encourages students to keep digging, asking questions, and putting their best effort into their work.  In Ms. Jessica’s Fourth Grade class, this takes the form of teacher observations that begin with “I notice that you….” And “I see that you are working hard at understanding… Did you consider this..?” By providing students with observations about their work, we encourage them to be self-reflective of their own practices and examine how their work can be improved through deeper questioning, intentional risk taking, and attempting new and different ways of thinking.

As teachers, counselors, administrators, and instructional leaders, we work to adapt a growth mindset that encourages grappling within our community of educators as well as a culture that permeates the walls of our school. Our hope is that by nurturing a growth mindset in our school, our students will develop a habit of mind that will give them emotional and academic strength to face challenges in school and out.  When students and teachers grapple together, our classrooms feel supportive, safe, and connected.  As observed with Ms. Jessica’s Fourth Graders, every student feels comfortable asking questions and being inquisitive about the thinking processes of other students.  There is tremendous buy-in by students, and because the support and safety has been so well established, students are comfortable making mistakes and asking questions of one-another that push them outside of their comfort zone and into the zone of proximal development where they feel challenged and can learn.
Experiences in which students grapple can be messy.  As teachers working to find the best ways to support students in grappling, we don’t have all of the answers, but we believe wholeheartedly in giving students opportunities to build their critical thinking skills and emotional stamina.  As we work to build a culture of grappling, our work will surely yield mistakes, but we do not fear these challenges. Rather, we welcome the opportunity to grow our mindsets and practices together as learners, students, leaders, and teachers.

Further Reading:

  • Spiegel, Alix. “Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” NPR, 12 Nov. 2012.