Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?

Teens See Challenges, Build Solutions, Even Make Money

People often roll their eyes when I suggest that teens could do other than flip burgers and mow lawns.

Here are some examples of teens who have looked around them and found problems they wanted to solve.

Collage of items representing problems for which teens sought solutions

The underwear problem

Megan Grassel, 17, went bra shopping with her younger sister. She noticed the selections were “padded, push-up, and sexual,” neither comfortable or appropriate for a young girls.

Megan started the Yellowberry Bra Company to fill that niche.

She funded her start-up with a Kickstarter campaign.

The spilled beverage problem

At 9 years old, Lily Born invented a three-legged ceramic cup to help her grandfather, who has Parkinsons’s, drink without spilling. A Kickstarter campaign furnished money to manufacture it.

At 11, she returned to Kickstarter to finance an unbreakable plastic version of her “Kangaroo Cup.”

The web traffic problem

In middle school, Michael Sayman liked to play computer games. He built a website about his favorite game.

To get more traffic for the site, he taught himself to code using online tutorials (his school didn’t offer computer classes) so he could build a mobile app.

When the bank foreclosed on his family home during the recession in 2012, the Michael developed an app into a successful game that kept a roof over the family.

The speech/hearing problem

Eric Zeiberg wanted a better way to communicate with his autistic sister. And a family friend with muscular dystrophy, who is a doctor, needed an alternative to pen and pad for communicating with her patients.

At 11, Eric began working on a way for people with speech and hearing challenges to be able have two-way conversations.

By age 12, Eric had developed his HandySpeech app which lets people write on the screen of their smartphone or tablet and have the text read aloud in a human-like voice.

HandySpeech worked with Nuance (the company that makes Dragon Naturally Speaking) so that voice responses can be translated into text for the person with the speech or hearing difficulty. The application is available on iTunes. An android version is being developed.

What are your kids’ problems?

All these young people were able to recognize a problem close at hand that needed a solution.  They were willing to invest their time in developing that solution. And because they worked to solve the problem, adults were willing to help them.

Perhaps none of these inventions will save the planet or even put their inventor through college.

But they will certainly have taught their inventors a great deal about how to motivate themselves, and how to stick with a project, and how to learn.