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Moving Forward

This weekend I got to watch a horse clinic.  A world-class trainer met with several horse owners and their horses and helped them work through challenges they were experiencing.  In one session the horses walked through an obstacle with several distractions such as balloons, a gate of pool noodles, poles on the ground and even a caged chicken.  The point of this exercise was to help the horse learn to trust the rider and continue to move forward through the obstacles.  Even though these were experienced riders and well-trained horses, many of the horses refused to go through the obstacles.  Sometimes the riders were surprised by this fear.  Other times they anticipated it so much that they transferred their apprehension to the horse.  In each case, when the horse started to back up or refused to go through the obstacle, the trainer encouraged riders to focus on maintaining forward movement.  Sometimes that meant trotting around the obstacles and then taking another pass through it.  Other times it meant moving forward alongside the obstacle.  The key was not to let the horse stop or back-up.  “Keep moving forward,” was the mantra the trainer used over and over.

In school and in life, students face a multitude of challenges and obstacles.  The mantra, ‘keep moving forward,’ is a good one for them as well.  In the horse clinic, the trainer kept reminding the riders that the problem was not the obstacles, the problem was that the horse was not moving forward.  “The obstacles are there, and there is nothing you can do about them, but you can control whether or not your horse moves forward,” he emphasized.  Try applying this same lesson to students in the classroom.  The learning tasks, standards or homework are like the obstacles.  We often think of these things as the problem, something we just have to get students through.  Students often have the same attitude thinking “I just have to get through this reading or these math problems.”  But what if we changed our mindset?  What if instead of focusing on getting through standards or homework, our students’ obstacles and challenges, we focused on moving students forward?

Take for example story problems.  I remember when I was in school just opening the math book and seeing story problems made me want to put my head down and cry.  My dad can attest that many nights that’s exactly how we proceeded through this challenge.  He would try to help me understand the problem and push me through often showing me how to solve it.  Sometimes he would use mathematical strategies I hadn’t even learned yet.  I remember when he first tried to show me an equation using x for the unknown.  I had no concept of how letters could replace numbers and retreated back so fast I think it was hours before I could tackle the problem again.  For me, math and story problems in particular, were just something you had to get through but I never really learned how to move forward.  I’ve been lucky enough in my teaching career to work with some amazing math teachers who have been able to make this a very different learning experience for their students.  Instead of focusing on the problems, they help students move forward by teaching them how to use strategies. There are many resources available for helping students learn strategies to move forward with problem solving.  One of my favorite resources is Becoming a Problem-Solving Genius by Edward Zacccaro.  He approaches difficult math problems by teaching strategies that can help students move forward in thinking through the problem.  I have also found my IDEAS framework to be a useful tool for tackling problems, including math word problems.  In a previous blog, It Depends, I shared how I use this framework to help students research a topic and to design work for students.  The flexibility of this framework also allows it to be applied to any problem-solving situation including story problems.  Here’s how it works with math problems:

  1. IDENTIFY the problem. Understand the problem.  What is the problem asking you to find out or solve?  What information do you have?  What information do you need?

  2. DESIGN a plan to solve the problem. What strategies might be useful for this problem?

  3. Guess and Check

  4. Draw a Picture

  5. Make a List

  6. Act it Out

  7. Write a Number Sentence

  8. Use Objects

  9. Make a Table

  10. EXPLORE a solution. Try working out a solution using your strategies.

  11. ANNOUNCE what you tried and what worked or what didn’t work. If it’s about moving forward and not just getting through this is an important step where students can share how they moved through the problem regardless of whether or not they found a solution or even the correct answer.

  12. SELF-REFLECT. What did you learn from this problem?  How can you use what you learned when you approach problems in the future?  What additional learning might you need?

The IDEAS framework moves students away from getting stuck in the problem to moving forward, focusing on the strategies and tools for action rather than the obstacle.   The IDEAS framework also provides a structure for the work.  In the horse clinic, if the horse would not move forward, the trainer would still make the horse work rather than allow it to just give up and quit.  For the horse, this meant walking around in circles which is a mentally challenging activity for a horse.  We don’t need to punish students who are not moving forward by giving them more work or insisting that they figure it out on their own, but we do need to insist that they do the heavy mental lifting, the work.  A framework like IDEAS gives students the scaffolds they need to think through a problem without just showing them the solution so they can get through it.  Like my dad, we often have the best intentions of helping our students work through problems, but it is not until we stop focusing on the problem and start focusing on the actions required to think through problems that our students will begin to make progress.

Let’s apply some understanding from the horse clinic.  When your child or students are facing an obstacle, start with your own mindset.  Convey your belief in their ability to keep working through the challenge.  Provide them with a framework such as IDEAS to focus their attention on the actionable steps rather than on the problem.  Don’t get stuck in the problem or in just pushing them through.  Encourage them to work the problem by using strategies and tools.  Remember the power of yet and KEEP MOVING FORWARD!

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