When Kim Zeugner’s fifth grade math students walk into her classroom on the first day of school, they’re going to notice something posted in the corner of the whiteboard: photographs of a broken-down school bus, covered in rust and forest growth, with the invitation to “Take a ride on the struggle bus... and GROW your brain!”
Zeugner sets the tone for the class at the beginning of the year with an explanation of the photographs: she tells her students that there will be times when things get hard as they are learning how to solve new problems, and that they will be frustrated. That’s when “we are on the Struggle Bus, and we’re all going to ride on the Struggle Bus this year. And that is where the fun starts.”
Zeugner, who teaches at a Title 1 school in Wake County, NC, developed the Struggle Bus concept a few years into her career in the classroom. Her students responded enthusiastically from the beginning.
The bus is about teaching students that learning is a journey, not an innate gift that some have and some don’t. Often, multiple students are stuck on a problem and metaphorically on “the bus together.” When they are struggling over a common problem, they are able to work together to create new strategies to get off the bus—in other words, to solve the problem. This metaphor normalizes struggle and shows kids that at one time or another, learning will be hard, but that is ok.
“When you get on the bus you might be frustrated, but when you get off the bus, when you figure something out, your brain releases endorphins and you just feel great,” Zeugner said. In fact, beneath her picture of the bus is the exclamation, “That was a fun ride!” She makes it a point to explain to her students how the brain works: how it’s always growing and changing, and how working hard to learn a new fact or strategy creates new connections in your brain. And the more you practice, the stronger those connections become.
Her students sometimes throw their hands in the air and shout that they’re riding the bus when they get stuck on a problem. The best part about that, Zeugner says, is that other students begin to offer strategies for how to solve the problem, and everyone learns from each other. This develops a classroom culture in which students support one another in their struggles rather than react with ridicule or shame.
Zeugner believes that teaching a growth mindset must become a part of the teacher’s overall outlook and approach and become embedded into classroom practices. “It’s about the attitude and how you speak to your children, and what you expect of them in class,” Zeugner said.
The most important aspect of this in her classroom is never giving a child praise for something that appeared to come easy. This may seem counterintuitive, but growth mindset research shows that telling a student they’re good at a particular skill will make them believe they are bad at the things they haven’t yet figured out. “It becomes a very fixed idea of ‘I’m good at this,’ or ‘I’m bad at this,’” Zeugner said, “instead of ‘I’m on a journey.’”
So what can you say to students when they succeed? Emphasize the progress students have made and the work it took to get there. Remind them of how they struggled greatly in the beginning. This will show them that growth is possible. “That kind of becomes the language of our classroom,” Zeugner said. Her students pick up on the phrases she uses as they encourage themselves and their classmates to try new strategies and keep exercising their brains to find solutions.
And this is how the Struggle Bus normalizes challenge and helps to create a growth mindset culture: students learn that the uncomfortable feeling of struggle is normal and they do not equate it with lack. By praising the effort it takes to learn new strategies, Zuegner helps the students make the connection that progress comes from hard work, and we all struggle at one time or another.
Whether it's using a visual image like the Struggle Bus, or using programs like Brainology to show the brain is like a muscle and gets stronger when you use it, it's an approach to problem-solving that any teacher can use. To learn something new, kids need to understand that struggles will inevitably occur, and that means it’s time to buckle up for a bumpy ride. That’s a powerful lesson for students.
We are starting a new series about teachers who use growth mindset practices in their classrooms. We hope you’ll find inspiration from these colleagues, who use innovative ways to teach students about how the brain works and why the process of problem-solving is often just as valuable as the solution.
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