I’ve been so impressed and intrigued with Malcolm Gladwell’s observations on the relationship between persistence and success in math. So, at an appropriate moment, I eagerly told one of my students about the woman Gladwell describes in Outliers, who kept trying to understand the slope of a vertical line until she finally got it after quite some time.
“How long do you think she kept working on that problem?” I asked my student.
“I don’t know,” my student said. “Maybe three hours?”
Then it hit me. I want all of my students to cultivate persistence, and some of my students definitely need to work harder. But maybe the woman I was telling my student about wasn’t exceptional because she kept trying. Maybe she’s exceptional because she kept trying and she finally got it.
What if students are already persistent and diligent and still not able to understand the material? Is telling them to persist and try harder really the answer?
When I was in middle school, I was an extremely diligent Latin student. I would dutifully copy out the text we were translating, look up every single word in the dictionary and in declension and conjugation charts, and list my English translation under the Latin word. Then I would randomly try to string the words together into a complete sentence.
For whatever reason, my Latin teacher adored me and repeatedly praised my thorough preparation in front of the class. But wasn’t it completely obvious that I had absolutely no idea what was going on?
Even though she was a world-reknowned Latin scholar who cracked jokes in fluent Latin with her friends at the Vatican, she didn’t seem to notice (or care) that I had no idea how the Latin words worked together to create meaning.
Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I didn’t understand her explanations. Or maybe she never actually explained it. Even though I was totally clueless, I got straight As in Latin for three years. But my effort was not enough. I never understood Latin.
It happened to me in other classes too. When I was an Algebra 2 student, I’d work on a math problem until I got totally stuck, and I’d approach the teacher’s desk for help. “You need to try harder to figure it out for yourself,” he’d tell me dismissively, and then send me back to my desk.
Now, some of my students confide in me that when they ask their teacher a question, the teacher responds, “If you had been paying attention when I explained it, you wouldn’t need to ask that question. So shut up and pay attention!” But the student was paying attention, and still didn’t understand!
It’s clear that “trying harder” and “paying more attention” aren’t going to fix anything if the effort is misguided, or if what you’re paying attention to doesn’t make sense in the first place. So why are students chastised to work harder and pay more attention as if those are the only variables in the equation that can be changed? I’ve found that frequently the missing link isn’t more effort or focus, but a better explanation or an alternative version of the procedure.
Students (and teachers) can actually change many variables in the equation. They can get a book that works better for them, ask someone else for help in hopes of getting a better explanation, watch an instructional video, or even switch to a different instructor entirely.
Maybe teachers hesitate to encouage students to explore these alternatives because it might undermine their authority. But it’s to the detriment of many hard-working and attentive students who struggle in silence, mistakenly believing that if they just try harder or pay more attention they’ll finally get it—or fearing that if they don’t, they must be incapable.