Can we be mindful about where we let the students struggle?

It is mindless to let the students struggle themselves with everything. My experience of a distance MA is that you are given a reading list, 2-3 exemplars, and everything is up to you. You struggle with the question, of what to choose to read, of how to structure, of what to miss out, of the style to use, and what findings might be useful.

This struggle of distance study will take place in the squeezed time outside of professional and personal obligations. Dozens of hours are spent digging difficult routes out of dead ends. Vague and contradictory feedback, usually based on ‘more here’ or ‘bring it together’, encourage more naive wanderings through a new thoughtscape. Perhaps a fateful few will stumble across the golden concepts in their study: such a discovery is far from certain. That is a struggle.

I used to think it was mindful to scaffold most work for my students. I would guide them in exploring, gaining, structuring and embedding the various concepts they needed to understand tricky texts and to write decent essays. The more I discerned the steps in the process, the better able my students were to stride purposefully along their learning journey.

Just as significant, the time I invested in this scaffolding felt like hard, meaningful work.

However, I wonder now if scaffolding is, in its own way, somewhat mindless…

Students learn when they struggle with difficulty. Can we be mindful of the moments where we want students to struggle? Of course, the ZPD is your catch-up ‘perfect middle’, but can we better articulate this for our discipline?

I think good educators should be mindful of the concepts they want their students to gain, articulating them and using interesting activities to encourage students to gain them. For the best students, those concepts should be labels for thought they have already encountered, a lens through which that which was already sensed might now begin to shine into view. For those less able, these concepts offer big Xs to dig away the sand of ambiguity.

Once students have gained a series of the most essential concepts for that essay, then they can perhaps struggle with how those concepts relate. This is where I think students’ struggle is best focused.

Let me give an example: creating topic sentences to focus on Blanche’s entry into the Kowalski home in Act 1 of Streetcar. A series of essential concepts can guide our understanding and response: alienation, delusion, passion, external vs external, class. These concepts can be extended and/or related:

alienation + delusion

passion + external vs internal

alienation + class

These can become noun phrases:

alienation leading to delusion

internal passion conflicting with outer expectations

the alienation of class conflict

In addition, the concepts can themselves be extended into noun phrases:

hidden passions subverting demur expectations

the misplacement of a lost higher class in new America

Each of these concepts can become part of a topic sentence that will then guide the type of analysis that the student can use in their essay. Bear in mind that these concepts are not all created equally: some do not relate as well with a question as others, and some relationships are tenuous or clunky, making too large a leap or simply not convincing.

The next step is to show how a conceptual (or thematic) focus can guide a literary commentary on an extract.