On the 17th of December, the same day as our Fall Commencement ceremony, I attended the commissioning three of our students as officers in the US Army.  It is an important event in the lives of these young people.  They did something that is hard, something that separates them from others in a meaningful way, and they were recognized for it.  During the evening, they got recognized in a similar way for the educational challenges they have met.

On the 17th of December, the same day as our Fall Commencement ceremony, I attended the commissioning three of our students as officers in the US Army.  It is an important event in the lives of these young people.  They did something that is hard, something that separates them from others in a meaningful way, and they were recognized for it.  During the evening, they got recognized in a similar way for the educational challenges they have met.

A lot of people do things that are hard, things that set them apart from the pack, but not all of them are recognized for it.  If an achievement is in connection with an institution like the US Army or a university, there are usually structures in place to recognize it, but  I’ve got a feeling that most of our very best accomplishments are only recognized in the small circle of the family or at our funerals if at all.  Many of our greatest battles are fought with only ourselves as witnesses, but, maybe, winning respect from ourselves is the most important honor we can win.

As I’ve been in the classroom less, I’ve been savoring the time I spend there more and am becoming more philosophical about it.  I am a math teacher; we have our distinct way of doing things just as any discipline does. 
We work on problems. While there are formulas and theorems that we can use, the problems that are most important to us aren’t the ones you can just plug numbers in for variables and grind until you get an answer.  We attach more value to the problems that aren’t just “straight-forward.”

As a math student, you’re given a problem that you have no idea how to do, and you struggle with it.  And you struggle with it.  And you struggle with it.  And finally, after having struggled with no apparent progress and lots of frustration, you walk down the hall to the teacher’s office and ask for a hint, and the professor will say something cryptic.  Then you’ll walk back down to your desk saying, “Well, that was a BIG help--not.”

Then you sit down and, using the professor’s remark, make a little progress until you hit the wall again.  You’ll struggle at the wall a while like before, and then you’ll make the same lonely trek down the hall again, and the teacher will give you another cryptic bread crumb.

This might go on for a long, long time: days, weeks, or even months and years in grad school.  Then you get the answer and you know that it is right and you know that you did it yourself and all the teacher did was give you bread crumbs along the way.  It is a great feeling.

This is what I call Fruitful Frustration and the particular way it plays out in math, though it happens in every discipline.

The process of succeeding for yourself, doing something hard, with just a little guidance, a few bread crumbs, from someone else is, in my opinion, is an important event. It is a separator. Education at its best can provide this.  It is available in many other areas, but education attempts to systematize it and validate it.

And, as I said, I don’t mean to imply that education is the only place this happens.  If you raise children to be productive citizens it is a struggle and you don’t always get the bread crumbs and we don’t have a ceremony for you.  They leave the house, and you cry, but there is that inward feeling of satisfaction.

But in education, providing this Fruitful Frustration is our job. We don’t necessarily provided it in every assignment or every course, but we have to provide it somewhere and with some frequency or we are taking money under false pretenses.

The trouble with this is that it is not as easy as it sounds. It is an art. Not only does the teacher have to know the subject, but the teacher has to know the student.

Depending upon how far the student is along, what you think is a bread crumb is a spec so small that the student can’t even see it. Sometimes there’s pressure or perceived pressure, to give the student the whole loaf.  And it is easier just to do that, quite frankly.

It is a difficult thing.  If there is too little help, the student will become so frustrated as to quit trying.  If there is too much, the student will never no the satisfaction of true achievement.  It is not an easy thing to do, and it can be frustrating for us, but, even for the teacher, the frustration can provide fruit.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University.