WE ONLY GET STRONGER WHEN IT’S DIFFICULT!

9 09 2013

Photo by Barney Moss

Gifted kids, by their nature, often breeze through the early years of school, not facing a real challenge until high school or college. They get used to succeeding without putting in the work. Then, when things get difficult, they can flounder. Even in 6th grade, I’d see this starting.

So, here’s a great opening week discussion that sets up a year-long expectation. Teach your students that we only get stronger when it’s difficult.

How To Grow A Muscle

I showed my students this image:

Weight lifter

Photo from the US Navy

After waiting for the commotion to die down, I asked:

“Do you know how his muscles got so large?”

They knew that lifting weight was involved, but didn’t know about whymuscles grow.

Push ‘Em To Their Limits

I explained: muscles only grow when we work them just more than what they’re used to. This causes “micro-tears,” damaging the muscle just slightly. This is why our muscles hurt after a workout.

The muscle then thinks, “Uh oh! We’re doing harder work, I better get stronger!” and uses protein to repair the micro-tears, building itself backa little bit bigger.

Then, we repeat.

Work the muscle past its ability, it hurts, and then it rebuilds itself stronger. Eventually, this is how bodybuilders get huge muscles! Little bit by little bit, they push their muscles just past their limits.

We Only Get Stronger When It’s Difficult

I’d emphasize, if we did nine pushups, but stopped because the tenth got tough, then the muscle won’t grow! It’s only the difficult repetitions that cause growth. We only get stronger when we push ourself through that final, tough pushup.

Of course, I’d dramatically act out the final repetition of a bicep curl, wincing with the imaginary effort.

Our Thinking Muscle

All of this is true for thinking and learning as well. When it’s difficult, when it’s uncomfortable, when it’s getting frustrating, that’s when we’re pushing our brain. That’s when we’re learning and growing.

So many of my students would give up just as things got hard. They don’t like the way it feels. They’re not used to it. But the longer they wait, the more difficult it will be to push themselves.

This difficult part could apply to:

  • finishing the word problems in math homework
  • writing out answers in complete sentences
  • taking notes while reading
  • citing sources in a research paper
  • pushing through a challenging book

It Gets Easier!

And, as many athletes will say, you don’t just get used to the idea of pushing past a barrier, you actually start to like it! Runners, bodybuilders, and swimmers all profess how good they feel after a tough workout. It’s getting started that’s so hard.

Beyond The Brain

I’m sure your students will come up with many different situations where struggling past the difficult part is important. Do a class brainstorm and capture these examples.

A Year’s Motto

I printed out the statement “We Only Get Stronger When It’s Difficult” and stuck it to the board, referencing it constantly. If I saw the class being academically lazy, I’d point to the weight-lifter and recite the motto: we only get stronger when it’s difficult!

Here’s an image I made using PasuKaru76‘s hilarious Lego photo. Feel free to download, print, and use it in your class:

Lego stronger

Download here in color or here 

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