Choosing a Task That Fosters Productive Struggle

When I first heard the words “productive struggle,” I imagined the many times I have watched students struggle to learn a math concept. My heart has always been sensitive to the children that would have to work to learn an idea. Growing up, I had cousin to whom learning appeared to come very easily. I would study for hours and he would hardly study and do just as well.

Therefore, I empathize with students who have to work to understand a concept. In my learning experience I have definitely experienced productive and unproductive struggle. As a teacher, I wanted to be confident I was creating experiences for my students where the struggle resulted in new learning (productive struggle), but I never had a very precise way of doing it. I would parallel it with a guess and check method. I just blindly trusted what others said, whether it was in the curriculum or said by an “expert.” The inner struggle I would have as a teacher was that I wanted to put a good challenge in front of my students and have high expectations. But when does productive struggle cross the line in to unproductive struggle?

After reading the research around student adaptive pedagogy I have a deeper understanding of productive struggle and a mental picture of students who are experiencing it. The student examples and the concepts from the learning model of student adaptive pedagogy are what I was looking for. It has given me a new lens and power to be more strategic as a teacher to choose tasks that promote productive struggle. When I was in the classroom I had the privilege of seeing this on a daily basis.

Seeing evidence of a student experiencing productive struggle was the confirmation that I had made a good decision in the task I presented them. I would watch students work through a problem multiple times and not give up. Sometimes they would work as long as ten minutes on the same problem. When they finally solved it the satisfaction on their face was priceless. I knew I had done my job in choosing an appropriate task, but they knew they had done their job of working hard and making sense of the problem. I could see the pride they had. This is what I want for all my students.

If they feel empowered to solve challenging problems, maybe that tenacity will carry over in other academic and life areas. Carol Dweck says, “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

This is what we want as teachers, and the research I cited above has provided a tool to do this. How have you created experiences for your students that have resulted in productive struggle? What math concepts do you find you students just struggling over with no productivity? In my next blog entry, I’ll give a more specific example of a student I believe experienced productive struggle and how I choose the experiences for them.

2 Responses to Choosing a Task That Fosters Productive Struggle

  1. Brenda, thanks for asking. It has been an exciting journey to refine how I see productive struggle enacted in the classroom. Dweck’s work around growth mindset was one of a few lens I used when I was working with students. The quote summed up the posture we want for ourselves and our students. The research on student adaptive pedagogy has been the most informative in this journey of refining productive struggle for me. Within the research, I have studied a developmental progression of how students come to know number, addition, and subtraction concepts. This progression informed the decisions I made to choose tasks for students. My next blog will be a little more specific about how the research influenced my decision in choosing a task. Let me know if there is something in particular you are curious about.

  2. Hi Beverly, I agree that fostering productive struggle is quite a difficult concept and yet an important component of teachers pedagogy. I am wondering if when you say ‘the research I cited above has provided a tool to do this’are you referring to Dweck or are there other researchers whose work you have drawn on? Thanks

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