When A Problem Seems Insurmountable, What’s The Real Challenge?

“Oh, man. See… When I see a question like this, it just makes my head spin.”

That’s a direct quote from one of my students in a recent session.  My student was looking at the kind of math problem that buries a very simple question under layers of geometry and several lines of text.

Although this kind of problem can seem intimidating, it’s easily solved using simple methods and a little patience.  It’s an excellent opportunity to show how complicated-seeming problems can be broken down and conquered with surprisingly little effort.  That lesson isn’t just useful on a test; it’s also vitally empowering.

The math problem was important for another reason:  it made my student visibly anxious.  If we could tackle it at that moment with a simple and powerful method, that might have significantly improved my student’s state of mind and bolstered our rapport.

In other words, my student was handing me a golden opportunity to teach one of the easiest, most impactful lessons I could possibly teach.  The moment practically begged me to jump in and lead.

I did lead – but I didn’t jump in.

I signaled that I had heard and understood what my student had said.  Then I watched, waited, and said nothing.  I paused.  I held myself back for less than half a minute.  And in that time, my student slowly started chipping away at the problem until the solution was clear.

As a tutor, it’s easy to see situations like this as invitations to take over and deliver your highly effective anxiety-crushing methods.  You don’t want to see your students struggle in vain, especially with something you’re being paid to help them learn.  You want them to see you delivering the solutions they expect.  And although you’d hate to admit it, you want the feeling of vindication that comes from demonstrating an easy solution to someone’s apparently intractable distress.

But I hadn’t been invited to jump in.  It took careful observation of body language and facial expressions to notice, but my student hadn’t given up.  The anxiety was real, but it was manageable.  My student’s comment was an invitation to listen and understand.  It warranted receptivity and validation, not rescue.  It demanded respect for my student’s space and capabilities.

Had I jumped in at that moment, I would have replaced my student’s solution with my own.  If my student felt any positive emotion after that, it would have been nothing more than an evanescent sense of relief.  The price for that relief would have been validation of my student’s initial anxiety and suppression of their talent. I would have denied my student the chance to see and exercise their own strength – something more valuable than literally anything else I could have offered in that moment.

This is a context in which vision is crucial for a tutor.  What was my student’s most important struggle in that moment?  Despite initial appearances, it wasn’t the struggle against the math problem itself.  We know that because my student soon solved it.  The most important struggle was against the illusion that the problem was too difficult to solve without help.  It’s hard to imagine a better way for my student to prevail than literally solving the problem without help.

I’ve never been in a situation in which a moment of attentive silence has truly gone amiss.  I have been in countless moments in which attentive silence has allowed my students to practice seeing skills and capabilities in themselves. I’ll take that over the alternative every time.

Students come to a tutor for guidance.  Sometimes they also need a boost.  But nothing should eclipse the need for space.