Challenge as the balancing of frustration and indifference

What makes you stick with a puzzle or a problem or a crossword clue until you solve it? What makes you give up?
One of the important things a teacher has to do in teaching mathematics is to balance the tension between a learner’s indifference and the learner’s frustration. At the point of balance between the two lies challenge. If a problem is too easy, then who cares if you solve it or not? If a problem is too difficult, you just get frustrated and give up. But if a problem seems within your grasp, the challenge is just right and the chances are that you’ll stick with it, thinking it through carefully in order to try and achieve the satisfaction of solving it.
Teachers of mathematics try to achieve that balance when they set problems for learners. But it’s not easy. Especially when you have 20 or 30 learners for whom the points of balance between frustration and indifference lie in different places. Teachers try to monitor how students are responding to a problem. The kind of hint(s) offered to learners and the timing of those hint(s) are critical to maintaining the frustration/indifference balance. The temptation is to give too big a hint too soon because at least then children get closer to recording an answer in their copies. The trouble is that reducing the frustration too much leads to indifference. On the other hand encouraging children to stick with a problem that is too difficult leads to frustration. And working with 20 or 30 frustrated learners is tough too. What we want for learners in setting them problems to solve is the challenge that is poised delicately between indifference and frustration.

Balance of a challenging task

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