Thursday, August 10, 2023

Teachers need to struggle to learn

The towel was a gift from a student. I take it on all my trips now.
I’ve previously written about the empathy I’ve gained while traveling. In that post, I asked if you remember what it was like to first learn the body of knowledge which ultimately became your profession. I observed that much of the initial content we learned is second nature to us now. We don’t even think about the fact that there was a time when we didn’t know it, and we may have even forgotten how much we struggled to learn that which seems trivial to us now.

I’ve again had an experience that reminded me of the challenges that occur when facing something completely new. As a result, I’ve come to believe that every teacher needs to periodically have a similar experience. Beyond the learning that will occur, it will remind them what it’s like to learn, and make them better teachers. Stay with me for a few minutes, and I’ll explain.

As I write this post, I’m mid-way through an eight-hour airplane flight from Berlin, Germany, to New York, New York. My wife and I are at the end of a nearly three-week vacation in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany. We’ve previously traveled internationally a few times, but, except for one trip, our destination has been to England, Scotland, and Ireland—all countries where English is very prevalent. English was still fairly common this trip as well, primarily due to us being in tourist areas. None-the-less, we still experienced many challenges.

Our experiences

Visiting these countries meant that we were met with many different languages, and we don’t speak or read any of them. We experienced many different customs as we moved from one country to another. Each country had their own currency, and varying exchange rates with the US dollar. (To make things a bit more confusing, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all call their currency by the same name, but they are each a unique currency.) Also, living in Muncie, Indiana, and having our own cars, we are not accustomed to traveling by busses and trains. We found that the transportation schedule tables were very confusing and difficult to understand.

Our feelings

As a result of these experiences, we often felt confused, frustrated, isolated, and occasionally, helpless. Not being able to read or communicate with others presented a significant challenge at times. We had to resort to non-verbal approaches. Not knowing local customs, currency, or how to read transportation schedules meant we had to ask questions. But who do you ask, and what do you ask? If you’re an introvert, or like being self-sufficient, reaching out to others can be a real challenge. And it can feel like you’re bothering others when you ask for help to do something that you “should” be able to do on your own—at least you could if you were back home. We must have looked as confused as we were at times, as locals often asked if we needed help.

Look for the helpers

Fortunately, a variety of things helped us work through the challenges and to enjoy our trip. We found resources, both technological and human. Translator programs were a great help for understanding individual words or short phrases. Most local people with whom we interacted were (at least) bi-lingual and seemed accustomed to communicating with us foreigners. Utilizing online maps and directions was a tremendous help. We sometimes had a local guide which was great, in that they could provide “color commentary” that we likely would have otherwise missed. They also were familiar with transportation schedules and venues and helped us experience the most we could in a fixed amount of time.

Aside from those specifics, we found other factors helpful. Consistency and structure were a tremendous help. Once we learned one thing, we could often apply that knowledge to something else that was similar, quickly furthering our learning. And most of all, it simply took patience, practice, time, and a willingness to learn.

Our learners in a “foreign” land

How similar were my recent challenges to those that our learners experience—especially our first-time learners? Students are arriving on campuses as I write this or will be soon. The experiences of those attending college for the first time may be very similar to what I experienced. They must learn to navigate new environments, cultures, expectations, and new-found freedoms. They will discover that earning in college is likely different than high school. Professors may teach in different ways and have different expectations. They will need to reach out for help from their peers and professors.

We can help!

Our learners need help navigating these challenges. We can provide consistency and structure in our courses. We can clearly communicate our expectations. We can be open and approachable so they will feel comfortable asking us for help. We can provide learning opportunities that build on their prior experiences so they have something to which they can relate it. We can reach out to them and offer help.

I needed to struggle!

I already knew this. There is nothing new here; I’ve learned it before. But after a few semesters I started to forget. I needed this vacation to remind me, yet again, what it is like to be a learner—especially a new one. I needed to struggle to understand the language, the schedules, everything. This will make me a better teacher in a few weeks.

What about you?

I firmly believe that all teachers should periodically experience a significant new challenge. Travel to a new country where a language is spoken that you do not know. Learn a new language. Learn a new skill that is unlike anything you already know how to do. Push yourself and expand your horizon. What will you do to become a better teacher?


  1. I used to tell my students that said they felt a bit confused that that was a good sign. Otherwise, they weren’t learning new concepts.

    1. So true! If everything totally makes sense, you're not pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and understanding. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Personally, I was able to coast without struggling on intellectual giftedness until in graduate school. Then, I discovered I had no idea how to study which was a very bad thing. I had majored in mathematics, physics, and minored on computer science as an undergraduate, but it all seemed easy and I graduated magma cum laude in 3 years. I still think one cannot teach one’s full potential without struggling.

  3. Thanks for sharing. So many learners breeze through high school and then get tripped up in college, or as in your case, breeze through undergrad and stumble in grad school. Yes, teaching something well, makes you learn it even better.

  4. Some of us navigate the cultural challenges of a foreign land in our own backyard, almost daily, It was not until I traveled to Africa that I had the good fortune of feeling authentically included. There, I learned what it was like to feel privileged. I loved it. I embraced it. The experience illuminated the difficulty of moving beyond one's cultural comfort zone. I construct a learning environment that you describe, where students can build on past learning and experiences and are exposed to different ways of knowing. What a great article. We must remember when we did not know, experienced discomfort, and persevered in our learning.

    1. Thank you for sharing and reminding us that many "navigate the cultural challenges of a foreign land in our own backyard." It is so easy for those of us that are privileged in some way to forget (or not know) what it feels like to not have the privilege. We must do better,