Monday, September 12, 2016

The Value of Struggle

We are ready for the maze!
(We ambitiously took this picture before getting started.)
My daughter and I recently visited the corn maze at a nearby farm. (Yes, I live in Iowa. This is a thing here...) I had gone with her older brother in past years; this was her first time trying out the maze.

A corn maze is very much what it sounds like: a farmer carves a path through a cornfield, creating a maze among the 8-foot tall cornstalks that are beginning to dry out as we head into fall. This particular place always cuts the maze into an interesting shape that must look very impressive when viewed from the air--this year, the image was a train on a track, engine puffing smoke, with trees and hills in the background.

From our vantage point, of course, it looked more like this:

Our view, traveling through the maze. (Remember too
that I am well over 6 feet tall, and this corn is far taller!)

Before entering the maze, we received a map to help us discern our way, which showed the entrance and exit, and every line on the map indicated the dirt path through the tall corn.

And the fun: hidden throughout the twisting path were six waypoints. At each waypoint, a different shaped hole-punch to record our visit. If we could make our way through the maze and find each of the six punches, we would win a prize! Of course we were up for this challenge!

And so, we plunged in.

We started methodically, keeping track of where we had traveled by watching the map. Soon we found our first checkpoint! ( daughter found it...I would have walked right past it, honestly...) And then another, and then another. Making good progress!

We continued working our way through the maze, and checking our progress. It took a while to find the fourth checkpoint, but we rejoiced when we did!

Lost in the maize...
At one point, we got off of the map somehow, and weren't exactly sure where we were. I snapped this picture of us--hamming it up, for sure--while were unsure where to go...

But, thankfully, we ran into some friends about that time, and they helped us figure out where we were, and they even gave us a tip as to the area where we would find the fifth checkpoint. We were back on track!

We soon punched in at the fifth checkpoint, and then we paused to go over the map. As we looked it over, we were pretty sure we had been everywhere indicated on the map by that point. We thought we had covered all of the ground, passed along every possible turn and corner. But we must have missed something, as we still had one checkpoint we had not yet discovered.

Unfortunately, by this time, it was beginning to get dark. Fortunately, we had remembered to grab a flashlight, just in case.

We pored over our map, going over each corner to check and recall where we had already traveled. We retraced a few paths that we were sure we had traveled, but wanted to review, just in case. We ran into some other people and asked them if they had found that checkpoint. They said they had, but the path they pointed to on the map was one we had recently traveled ourselves, and we did not find the checkpoint there.

We were getting a little frustrated, a little tired. This was not as fun as it had been at the beginning of our maze adventure. We were struggling a bit. We decided to retrace several twisting paths that we knew we had visited before, just in case there was some corner we had overlooked.

While we were working our way through the gloomy pathways by flashlight we heard a group exclaiming about finding the checkpoint we were looking for, from not far away. The elusive checkpoint #4, the sixth and final one we needed to complete our maze-running was not far away! A quick check of the map and estimating how far away the joyful exclamations had come from, and we figured about where we needed to go.

Punching that last checkpoint felt fantastic!
Coming around the corner, the other group was just finishing punching their maps. It was with some relief that we stopped at checkpoint #4 ourselves, now in near darkness. We found it! We had completed the task!

...Well, we were almost done. We still had to find our way out of the maze! But by now we knew basically where the exit was; it was on the opposite corner of the maze from our location at this final checkpoint. We worked our way across as quickly as we could, pausing to encourage a few of our fellow maze-runners with advice about the general locations of some checkpoints that they could not find.

We joyfully exited the maze, proud of our accomplishment. We had conquered the corn maze!

Feeling pretty proud of ourselves to have made it completely
through, and catching every checkpoint along the way.

Why share this story?

Well...I'm thinking about the value of struggle in education. There has been a lot made of "grit" in education of late. I'm not sure that this is what I'm thinking about right now, but maybe it's just because I really dislike the idea of "grit." Hearing about developing "grit" in our students always reminds me of getting something in my eye, or that yucky feeling of sand-in-the-swimsuit after a long afternoon at the beach. (Ew.) Grit seems like something unpleasant and irritating, not something I want to strive for in my classroom...though I'm not opposed to allowing students to struggle a bit.

I'm thinking of the positive value of struggling as part of learning. Okay, so the fun of the corn maze is certainly not the same as a formal learning activity, for sure. (And I'm not that Dad who is going to turn every fun hang-out time with my daughter into a learning activity either.) But is there an analogy to be made here? Could the struggle result in deeper learning? Could the struggle result in a greater sense of accomplishment?

Problem-based learning capitalizes on students struggling with real problems. Often times there are twists and turns that are uncovered as they work through the "maze" of the problem. If designed well, there are "checkpoints" along the way, opportunities to confirm their work to that point. Collaboration is prized in problem-based learning, because different people have different strengths and weaknesses--and perhaps have seen different parts of the map?--that can come together to make something great. And certainly there is celebration when a challenging situation has been conquered!

I wonder if we make things too easy on students by always plotting out an easy course for them to follow? And if we make it too easy on them, perhaps we're robbing them of the opportunity to struggle...and the joy and pleasure that comes from surmounting a challenge?


  1. The big thing with letting students struggle is in providing them with the support when they most need it, not just when the first frustrations begin. You heard the exclamations coming from the area that you knew must hold the last checkpoint; students need that kind of encouragement as well: not the answer but a comment that they are on the right track.

    1. Great point, Christian--I totally agree. I would *never* suggest we should just let the students struggle without support. What is the teacher for in that case? Just setting the kids up for the challenge? Ugh...that sounds more like the gamemakers in the Hunger Games; sadistic and cruel. I wonder if some teachers view their work that way?

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, my friend.