Opinion
Education Opinion

Chase the Challenge

By Tamara Fisher — January 21, 2008 11 min read

I heard a fable once about a boy who caught a bee and kept it in a glass box for quite some time. The air holes in the lid allowed the little bee its necessary oxygen but not its freedom. The bee raged against the box’s glass walls, trying mightily to fly on its way, but, of course, it was unable to escape. After many, many days of flying into the walls, the bee began to give up. It had learned the limits of its new home. It now flew within the box’s contained space and ceased to angrily crash into the walls. Days more later, the boy lost interest in his little hostage and took the box’s lid off so the bee could fly away. But it didn’t. Although now having the option of roving as it was able, the bee unknowingly restricted itself to the same space that had once been its cage.

In the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, Ferdinand the bull chose to take it easy every day, smelling flowers beneath the cork tree instead of wrangling with the other bulls. One day he was stung by a bee and understandably reacted with a big to-do of anger and aggression toward the bee. Those witnessing his reaction assumed him to be the strongest of the bulls. Selected as a result to take on a matador in the bullring, he was woefully ill-prepared for the task. Rather than take on the challenge of the approaching matador waving the big flag, he opted to literally sit it out. Because he had eased through his days smelling flowers, he didn’t know how to do that which he was capable of doing. As one reviewer of the book wrote, “He is praised all around for his power, until the day of his bullfight.”

Our gifted children often experience the same thing! We praise them for their power, but often don’t provide them with a real bullfight. In some cases, they are able to slide through the system (ease through their days smelling flowers) without ever experiencing a real challenge; then, on the day of their bullfight, which may be in high school for some, or in college for others, when they first hit that first hard subject that requires serious study, they are ill-prepared, lacking the study skills and perseverance needed when it comes to facing challenges.

The bee and the bull are both capable of more, yet neither reaches its potential – one due to forced restriction and one due to lack of desire to put forth the effort.

How can we help our gifted children relish a challenge? How can we help them want to put forth the effort when it’s actually needed? How can we help them know that they can b r e a k o u t o f t h e b o x ?

“Appropriate academic accommodations” is the most obvious and most necessary answer, whether those accommodations are achieved via compacting, acceleration, differentiation, telescoping, or other strategies.

But beyond that?

A lot of gifted students get used to getting everything “right” the first or second, sometimes third time that they try it. Many of them, frankly, skate through school. They develop a myth in their own minds that they should always be able to do anything the first or second, sometimes third time that they try it. Yet we as adults know that Life has a different plan for them in that regard. At some point (hopefully sooner rather than later), learning will get more difficult.

When I meet with my GT students, we do HARD work together. And at first this is a big shock to many of them. After they try a problem for the third time and don’t get it, their anxiety levels begin to s k y r o c k e t. Their terror at “not knowing” is palpable.

But we talk about it. I warn them. “This is supposed to be hard. I’m not expecting you to solve these problems lickety-split. It’s okay if you have to try 20 or 30 times before you figure it out. It’s okay if it takes you 20 or 30 minutes of effort to solve just one problem. As a matter of fact, that’s what we’re aiming for here today: hard work and hard thinking. If it’s not challenging for you, then I’m not doing my job right. It’s important to learn how to handle something challenging in Life! This is one place to learn that. Keep after it. You can do it. Stay in the struggle. Relish the challenge!”

And after many, many minutes of attempts, ‘failures,’ and continued attempts, someone ecstatically exclaims: “I did it!!!”

And when they do solve that first hard problem after working so hard at it, we talk about how it feels so much more satisfying to solve a problem you’ve actually had to struggle with than it does to “solve” the problems that are a piece of cake. This is important, because it helps them begin to understand why a hard-earned B in a challenging class is a far more meaningful badge of honor than an easy A in any easy class.

In our modern-day, instant-gratification, fast-food society, kids are growing up with quick access to everything: information, resources, answers, food, and just about anything else their little hearts desire. Fed-Ex can have it there tomorrow. The Internet can show it to them right now. There is less and less anymore that we have to persist after. Which only compounds the myth these gifted little squirts believe about themselves… that they should be able to know it instantly.

I notice some interesting reactions when watching the kids take on these challenges. Some of them, especially at first, don’t have very healthy strategies for dealing with the frustration they feel when they can’t immediately solve a problem. In the beginning, when they still more or less lack the ability to persist on hard problems, they avoid the struggle by turning usually to one of the following:
1- Some will cheat (their eyes slyly glancing to a neighbor’s work, for example)
2- Some will goof off (using their abundant creativity to build castles and monsters with the problem’s manipulatives, or joking around with a neighbor about what they had for lunch)
3- Some will give up (they say “I can’t do this,” or they simply sit quietly and try to wait out the class period, hoping I won’t notice that they’re not actually doing anything)

Extrapolate these reactions ten years into the future. Imagine these gifted youngsters now as college students, experiencing a class that is challenging them like none has ever challenged them before. If they haven’t learned better strategies for coping with challenging work in the intervening years, they will resort to what they know… the coping ‘strategies’ that come easiest: cheating, distracting themselves with something fun (video games, for example), or quitting. Is there a disturbing trend of cheating on our college campuses today? Yes. Do you know any bright kids who turn to a fun distraction the moment what they were doing gets hard? Do any of you know a gifted person who quit college because suddenly school was hard and s/he didn’t know how to deal with the challenge level? Are any of these three options what we want for these kids‽‽ Of course not.

But until we provide them with appropriate academic accommodations and until we help them learn healthy strategies for tackling a challenge, they will continue to resort to the quick and easy escape when faced with a hard problem.

On the other hand, asking for help, being persistent, starting over, taking a break, going at it backwards, trying again, looking at it from another angle… All of these are far better options than cheating, distracting, or quitting!

One very effective (and also very fun) method that I use to help these kids relish a challenge is with the use of the Rush Hour games. Yes, at first glance they look like just some toy for little kids, but I assure you they are far from a simple game for tiny tots! The harder levels will even challenge most adults. Essentially, they consist of a series of puzzles that get incrementally more difficult. The goal in each is to get a certain piece out of the puzzle by figuring out how to move the other pieces out of its way. The original version uses cars (hence the name “Rush Hour Traffic Jam Puzzle”). There’s also a version with safari animals, a version with railroad cars, and a junior version for the very young. You can even play it online.

The stack of numbered puzzle cards (40 or 50 total cards, depending on the version) allows my students to find the right challenge level for themselves. They can move themselves ahead if the puzzles are too easy or they can move themselves back if they think they previously moved themselves ahead too far. It’s fun and it’s HARD and they love it. And I love that it has proven to be such a great way to help them realize that being persistent on hard problems is important … and finally solving those hard problems is far more exhilarating than already knowing the answers.

The following are some comments that I overheard my gifted 3rd and 4th graders saying while working on Rush Hour recently:

“My brain feels like it’s going to explode.”
“I’m getting closer!”
“This thing is a monster!”
“It’s taunting and haunting me…”
“I think I’m about to blow up.”
“It’s like my arch-enemy!”
“Whoa! That took me awhile!”
I also heard the following conversation… One student who is new this year said, “Wow, this is really hard.” Sitting next to her was a student I’ve been working with for a few years. She told the new student: “Don’t tell her it’s hard. She’ll just say something like, ‘Thank you for the compliment.’ You’ll get no sympathy!”

They all worked really hard for our entire time together – and some of them only solved one or two problems. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they were persistently working on hard problems. They weren’t cheating. They weren’t distracting themselves by building towers of cars. They weren’t quitting.

Instead, they were trying again and again and again and again. They were asking for help when they felt like they’d hit a wall. They started over if they felt they’d worked themselves into a corner. They were persistent on something that was exquisitely challenging! And THAT was the success.

So what do they learn and internalize from this activity? Here are direct quotes from the kids:

“If you hear someone else say, ‘I did it,’ it makes you feel like, ‘Okay, I can do it, too.’”
“It helps you know that you can do hard stuff.”
“I realized it took a little while before you could figure out what you were doing.”
“It’s important because it stretches your understanding of persistence and how to handle your frustration and how to think positive thoughts when you’re struggling.”
“It’s important because you have to think a lot and plan alternatives.”
“It’s frustrating and very exercising for your brain. It’s also interesting to think that someone figured out how to make this so hard.” [The person who “figured out how to make it so hard” was Nobuyuki Yoshigahara.]
“It feels like it was worth it!”
“It’s definitely frustrating, but it gets fun.”
“It was interesting and frustrating, but when you solve one you’re happy because you worked hard and didn’t give up.”
“It was hard, frustrating, mean, and intolerant! It wasn’t a happy problem.”
“This is a good problem for the mind because it helps you use your head before you make moves.”
“It was challenging and frustrating and I probably could’ve gotten it if I had worked just a little longer and harder.”
“It stretches your brain. For us, school is not challenging enough. This was good because I feel like I’m learning. It’s good to come in here and do something I have to think about before I can know it.”
“It’s good when it’s hard because we can stretch our learning. And it actually is kinda fun for me when something is challenging.”
“If you only do easy things, you’ll never learn the harder stuff.”
“There might be a challenge up ahead [in the future] that you NEED to do for some reason, so you need to get harder stuff so that you can practice for that day, for that finale.”

I also asked them two questions on their way out the door that day: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how persistent were you today?” Most replied with answers of 9 or 10, a couple with answers of 8. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how frustrated did you get today?” Nearly all of them answered with 10 (or higher, like “ten and seven-fourths”). I replied, “Wonderful!” After the kids left, the other teacher in the room (I use her classroom at that school) said to me, “When you asked that first boy how frustrated he was and he said ‘10’ and you said ‘wonderful’ – I was a bit taken aback at first. I thought, ‘How could that be wonderful?’ But then I thought about it and realized that for these kids it is a good thing because it means they’re actually doing something that’s challenging them.”

Exactly :o)

For anyone interested, you can purchase the various Rush Hour games from Zanca, MindWare, and ThinkFun.

And some related food for thought:

“In the ordinary elementary school situation, children of 140 IQ waste half of their time. Those above 170 IQ waste nearly all of their time. With little to do, how can these children develop power of sustained effort, respect for the task, or habits of steady work?” ~ Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development, Leta S. Hollingworth, p. 299 ~

“The surest path to positive self-esteem is to succeed at something which one perceived would be difficult. Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence. They must learn to do hard things to feel good about themselves.” ~ Sylvia Rimm ~

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins - not through strength but by perseverance.” ~ H. Jackson Brown ~

[A final FYI: The Ferdinand paragraph of today’s post originally appeared in my book, “Intelligent Life in the Classroom.”]

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.