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04.14.15Rue Ratray: Frustration and Rigor, Part I

Frustrated Student

Rue Ratray is Dean of Curriculum and Instruction at UP Academy Oliver in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a district turnaround that’s one part of superintendent Jeff Riley’s bold efforts to revitalize the schools in this small former mill city that’s (previously) been known for under-performing schools. Rue’s an amazing and inspirational teacher.  You can see video of him in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 and in various places on this blog such as here and here. In fact, I find him so thoughtful and insightful that I’ve asked him to write a series of guest posts for Field Notes. Here’s the first:

As teachers, our jobs aren’t complicated. They’re just hard. As a teacher, I see my three main jobs as follows:

  1. Identify what is important for you to practice
  2. Construct the most effective practice possible (including coaching you through this practice)
  3. Motivate you to practice with full faith


They’re all important. But when I first started teaching, I thought the first was the most important.  Over time, I started to think the second was. More and more, I’m starting to think it’s the third.

The difference between good and great teachers is the ability to motivate students to practice.  I don’t know a single great teacher who doesn’t. But the phrase “motivating you to learn” inspires, in my mind, dreadful test prep pump up songs, painful acronyms and slogans and other such junk that I often see teachers use to try (and usually fail) to motivate students. What I mean here is that great teachers motivate their students to practice because they can identify and navigate the frustration that practice creates.

As a teacher, I will and want to generate frustration in my students. Frustration is implicit in high ratio lessons and high rigor questions.  No frustration = no learning. For a long time, I thought of the frustration my students felt as a sort of friction or background noise. Something that is present and should be attended to, but not something that should alter my instruction. Lately, I have begun to seriously question this assumption.

I like to think of most instruction that occurs in a school is a form of Cognitive Welding. This isn’t some “Kudzu growing quietly in the moonlight” situation. For most classroom instruction, I think learning presents as follows: Here’s a new thing I want you to learn. Maybe you want to learn it, maybe you don’t.  Either way, I need to figure out how to make it stick. And since my goal as a teacher is to make the cognitive weight as heavy as possible without overwhelming you, that connection needs to be as strong as possible. That doesn’t sound like stickiness to me.  It sounds like welding.

I tried to express this using the formulas below.  I’m pretty sure they are not mathematically sound.  But you get the basic idea…


Total weight = Size of leap + Tax of Induction


A brief explanation: The “total weight” is the rigor of the cognitive task. The “size of the leap” represents the jump from old knowledge to new knowledge. The bigger the leap, the heavier the weight. The “tax of induction” represents the added weight an inductive approach gives (i.e. learning something inductively is harder than learning something deductively).

Once we’ve got the weight of the thing being learned, there’s the consideration of the strength of the weld. The heavier the weight, the stronger the weld needs to be. I tried to express the variability like this…


Strength of weld = (1 – size of the leap) * (# of cycles of Model/Practice Feedback) – (Tax of Deduction)


So the heavier the weight, the more times you need to see a model, practice, and get feedback. If you present something deductively, it’s easier to understand, but less sticky.


So once I figured out what to teach (see above), these were the variables I could adjust to optimize learning. The third part, motivating students to do the practice, was never a consideration during planning. I knew I was generating frustration in my students and again, I wanted to, because I knew frustration = rigor = ratio = learning. I just never thought it was that much of a problem.


However, I was failing to appreciate two things about the levels of frustration I was creating in my classes. The first was I was vastly underestimating the wide range of levels of frustration in my class.  The second was that at one end of that spectrum, where frustration levels were the highest, what I was trying to present as productive frustration as an inherent part of rigorous instruction was being received as negative frustration and on occasion, humiliation. The quality of the target task, the tightness of the cycles of modeling, practice, feedback, all of it of was pointless for a number of my students. They were too frustrated to make the leaps I wanted them to make.


Ironically, it took me many years of teaching to rediscover this idea, which I was all too familiar with as a student. When I was in school, certain subjects, science especially, felt totally impossible, largely because I couldn’t picture the bigger concepts the content hung upon. Everything I encountered seemed like an impenetrable mystery. I hated the classes, the homework, the labs, the teachers, everything.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have some good teachers. I did. It wasn’t that the labs weren’t designed to be interesting.  They were. I was just sick of feeling stupid and frustrated all of the time.  So I’d sit in class, not try, say “I don’t know” when asked questions, and just wait for the whole thing to be over.  It took me years to realize that some of my students felt the same way for, I suspect, similar reasons.


Our school, UP Academy Oliver, is a special place filled with special people. I’ve heard the term “irreplaceable” used about teachers before.  Maybe the most irreplaceable person in our school is our psychologist, Shavonne Lord. She’s the person who can reach the students who seem most unreachable and not surprisingly, are often the most frustrated in class. She’s a good person to go to for advice, so I brought all of this to her. This is what she told me.


“Everyday in my job, I sit in my office, or on the hallway floor, or in a stairwell, with some of these unreachable students. As the school psychologist, I have the undeniable advantage of not presenting students with academic tasks or demands that they don’t want to do. Because of this, I often have the opportunity to view these students in a different light and a different space free of the insecurities they might feel in a classroom. In that space, I am able to gather honest information from these students about their frustrations in school. What is always clear to me is that these students want to do well and they want to be in class, they just don’t know how to navigate the level of frustration they feel on a daily basis. 

Behavior is communication. When a student puts their head down, yells out, throws something, rips up that class assignment, they are often communicating that what you are asking them to do is too much. This “negative frustration” does not push students to practice, it pushes them to feel inadequate in the classroom on a daily basis until they no longer feel as though they can succeed at any task. When we inappropriately challenge a student over and over again yet expect them to succeed, it often leads to shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. This creates a pattern of failure for the student that diminishes self-confidence over time and makes them unlikely to take risks in a classroom setting. When we think about middle school students in particular, the impact of this negative frustration is even more detrimental. Developmentally, middle school students tend to be self-conscious, sensitive to criticism, and seemingly transient in their emotions. The way they feel about themselves in the classroom in relation to their perceived academic ability is essential to success. 

Yet, for students to commit to practice and to take these “leaps” in the classroom, rigor and frustration are necessary. Students need to be challenged to grow, yet they also need to be willing to grow and believe they can. I remember a day at the beginning of the current school year with one of my 7th grade students. He was sent out of class for “high level disrespect” where he repeatedly swore at a teacher while refusing to begin his open response question.  In my office, as he was calming down he said several things, including “I don’t want to be in that class; it’s boring; the teacher disrespects me.” When he was finally able to process the situation, he talked me through his whole day and how it finally culminated in that one explosion. In thinking about his day, I understood that he had been academically frustrated for the whole day leading up to that moment. As I think about him, I understand then that positive frustration is first and foremost about building self-confidence. When a student feels confident in themselves to start class, they are more likely to engage in a rigorous task afterwards. It is then also about the sequencing of that frustration and how levels of frustration are built into a lesson and into a full school day.  If a student begins a lesson with a task a teacher knows they can succeed with, they are then more willing to engage in a challenging task.”


Irreplaceable, right?


(Note:  To this point, that there’s been no discussion of accommodations or modifications.  I am by no means an expert in special education or ESL instruction, but I do work with some, so please operate under the assumption that the instruction we are talking about includes appropriate accommodations and the frustration we’re seeing is occurring despite appropriate accommodations and modifications, and goes to the center and disposition of the instruction itself.)


All of this made me make two big changes to how I thought about practice, learning, rigor, ratio, and about school in general. The first is that I returned to those formulas from before and revised them.  This is how I started thinking about cognitive weight.


Total weight = Size of leap (new knowledge – old knowledge) + Tax of Induction + Tax of Frustration


Similar idea, but not I’m taking into account the “tax of frustration.” The more frustrated you are when learning something, the harder it is to learn. And thusly, the weld needs to be stronger.  So the formula, revised…

Strength of weld = (1 – size of the leap) * (Leap Affect) * (# of cycles of Model/Practice Feedback) – (Tax of Deduction)


The “leap affect” represents how willing students are to make the jumps we ask them to make.  Super willing? Probably a strong weld. Not so much? Probably not so much.

The second change was more important. I had always viewed school as follows: “School is a place where you learn new things. The job of the teacher is to model how the new thing works. The job of the student is to practice the new thing until it doesn’t seem new anymore.” This always seemed like a good idea, but after talking with Shavonne, it made me realize two things:

  1. The message we think students get from viewing school this way is, “Look at all the cool new things you get to learn!” But the actual message some students are getting all day long is, “You don’t know anything.”
  2. I don’t think it’s true.


This is what I have decided. I think that kids already know everything that we teach them in school.  Or at the very least, they know the intuitive nature of the underlying structure. What if we looked at school this way? What if we constantly reminded students that they were already experts in what they were learning, that they already had power and agency around their learning? That they were already great and their job, and ours, was to make them even greater?

This sounds like a great idea, until you think about the kids who can’t decode. And the kids who lack numeracy.  How can we call them experts, let alone get them to believe it? And how do we do this without backing off on the rigor of the target task? Because in the end, we’re asking for these levels of rigor and ratio because we know this is what our students need to do to be successful in high school, college, and life. I was stuck on this for a long time. Then they started writing stories.  Then everything became clear…

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