To what extent should we allow students to figure things out for themselves?

The question of how much to allow students to struggle and figure things out for themselves can be difficult. I only have experience with this question on a kindergarten level. I loved to give my students a “problem” (usually a task that involved constructing something) and ask for their help in solving it. Because I had my students for five hours (half day kindergarten) each day, I really knew them and their abilities. I knew their personalities and could easily read when they were at their breaking point (it varied each day depending on whether they were hungry, tired, or if their mom packed them grapes instead of a banana for snack). The breaking point typically meant tears, but sometimes took on the form of a full-blown screaming fit. I knew which students would be the first to ask for help or give up completely. I knew which students would be “done” first, even before they announced it loudly to the entire classroom. I started asking those students what they could add and when (not if) they told me that they didn’t know, I told them to ask five friends, because kindergarteners are always very honest. I also found out that my students were more likely to take the suggestions of their classmates over my suggestions. The best thing about teaching kindergarten is that their feelings are transparent. They don’t try to hide their emotions; it is sometimes also the worst thing about kindergarten.

The problem is the time it takes to really know your students. It isn’t a fast process when you have a class of twenty-six and I can only imagine if I had multiple classes of that many students, like middle and high school teachers have on a daily basis. I agree with the text, “the first step is to mindfully watch and listen to children as they work. What kinds of strategies are they employing to solve problems? What do they do when frustrated? What do you they say to you, to themselves, and to their peers when they are in learning situations? A teacher who is paying close attention to a child should strive to answer these and similar questions” (Martinez & Stager, 2013).

Even after I felt like I knew my students and their abilities, I still struggled with getting some of them to get out of their own comfort zone and enjoy the challenge of the project. I need them to get into the “flow” part of creating. “Flow is that feeling when you and your students are in a “zone.” The goal for a teacher is to design instruction that presents a challenge that matches our student’s skill level. The learning is happening at just the right pace” (Strauss, 2015). It is not something that is easy to pinpoint or achieve on a classroom scale because all children learn, process, and solve problems differently. Again, in kindergarten, I feel it was easier because building and playing were a part of my curriculum. I made sure that my students had time for learning centers, because I was allowed (and expected) to include that time in my lesson plans.

I read the article, “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten” by Mitchel Resnick. In the article, Resnick states that kindergarteners learn through “a spiraling process in which children imagine what they want to do, create a project based on their ideas, play with their creations, share their ideas and creations with others, reflect on their experiences – all of which leads them to imagine new ideas and new projects (Resnick, 2007).


Martinez, S., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Resnick, M. (2007, May 14). All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. Retrieved from MIT Media Lab:

Strauss, V. (2015, April 21). What is the value of letting students struggle in class? Teachers answer. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from The Washington Post:


8 thoughts on “To what extent should we allow students to figure things out for themselves?

  1. Cherie,
    I like how you ask your students to help you solve a problem. I agree with you about the importance of getting to know your students and watching for those frustration clues. That is so true about kindergarteners and their transparent feelings. They will tell you exactly how they feel. My daughter was in kindergarten this past year and she always tells me exactly what she thinks and how she feels. Kudos to you and the great work you do with kindergarteners! It is hard sometimes to get my 5th graders to share their feelings. It so important that we make our classrooms a place where students feel safe to share and to be OK when they struggle with a problem.


    1. Jessica,
      My students love to help me. I love that about them. I was able to spend some time tutoring some of our school’s 5th grade students and I agree that it is hard getting them to open up. However, behind kindergarteners, I think 5th graders are the most fun. Of all the grades, 5th grade was the first choice of what I wanted to teach and kindergarten was my last choice, but now that I’ve spent a year in kindergarten, I love it! There are definite advantages of teaching older students, like you don’t have to deal so much with the crying or bathroom accidents, but I think there are advantages and disadvantages to all grades.


  2. You wrote: “I knew their personalities and could easily read when they were at their breaking point (it varied each day depending on whether they were hungry, tired, or if their mom packed them grapes instead of a banana for snack)”

    This made me laugh, the life of a teacher. You also raised a good point that I often take for granted because I teach elementary age kids, that middle and high school teachers see more students, so it may take them longer to get to know their students. This year being a tech coach and going to 4 different schools was a struggle to know the students, I had to rely heavily on the classroom teachers. Not know the students names, not knowing the students tech abilities and not knowing their frustration level was tricky. I was in a 1st grade class teaching the students how to use the app Pic Collage. One student kept playing with different apps instead of Pic Collage. The teacher gave him a warning and I gave him a warning. I tried to redirect him multiple times. I thought maybe he didn’t understand the task, so I tried to help him with the activity, but he kept going back to other apps. I even tried to use the other apps as an incentive, “if you finish this activity you can use the other apps”. After about his fifth warning, I walked over and told him that I was going to take the iPad. He could have it back after a few minutes, but that he wasn’t following directions. I took the iPad away and he flipped out. He threw himself to the ground and started crying. I felt horrible. I had no idea that he was going to react that way. The teacher calmed him down and he took a break from the activity and came back and was able to start following directions.


    1. Having had you in my classroom, I can say that you read my students very well and I had a couple tough students. I bet it was difficult to know the students because you had so many, but you have good instincts. I believe that over time (if they weren’t putting you back in the classroom this coming year), you would recognize students and they would recognize you too. The more students there are, the more time it takes. I always feel horrible when my students cry too, but my students know that they are in our classroom to learn and they need to follow directions. I’m really glad that he was able to calm down and come back to the activity you were teaching!


  3. That is great that you know when your students are frustrated. I on the other hand have 150 students so it does take a long time for me to really get to know my students. I struggle with that as well getting kids to get out of their comfort zone. With a class of 30-35 sometimes some students still struggle with a comfort zone. Some are shy and don’t want to draw attention to themselves. It takes awhile for some students to come out of their comfort zones and sometimes it might take until almost the end of the school year before they really come out of their comfort zones.


    1. I have no idea how you do it with 150 students! I bet it is difficult getting to know them all and making them feel comfortable and safe with taking risks or sharing their feelings or thoughts. I do not like to do a lot of talking in groups because I never feel like I have anything valuable to contribute. I always feel like people have better ideas than me, so I spend a lot of time listening. The best thing a teacher did for me was have me journal my thoughts. Her rule was that either you share your ideas with the class or you spend the last five minutes of class writing in your journal about what happened in class. Then she gave me individual feedback. There wasn’t many students that wanted to do the writing, so she didn’t have a lot to read and I got great feedback that made me feel more comfortable with sharing during the class.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is a wonderful idea! I think I will have to try it. Then at least I can get those students that are shy to open up to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. rockislandtechie June 8, 2015 — 1:42 AM

    You mentioned Resnick’s article and I really wanted to read more about your own experience based on the ideas presented! I’ve worked with all grades and sometimes there is crying and kicking and screaming in upper grades too 😉 I once asked some teenage girls why they didn’t take advice from adults or mentors whom they KNEW had experienced the problems they were dealing with but instead listened to advice from their peers who had little to no experience on the topic. You know what they told me? “Because we know we won’t like what the adults say and our friends will encourage us to try what we want to do” is what they told me. Amazing! Now for sure, teenagers will often do the opposite of what adults say, but their answer helped me to understand how they viewed me and how I needed to help them understand their options so they could make the best decisions based on reliable sources.


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