Curriculum

What is Productive Struggle in Education?



Fostering resilience in students is as crucial as cultivating their academic knowledge and skills. After all, resilience equips students with the ability to navigate challenges, setbacks, and uncertainties in and outside of the classroom. One powerful way to develop the habit of resilience is through productive struggle—a process whereby students engage in challenging tasks that require effort, persistence, and problem-solving skills. This pedagogical approach encourages students to grapple with and persevere through difficulties to achieve deeper learning.

UNDERSTANDING PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE

Productive struggle refers to the process by which students tackle complex tasks that are slightly beyond their current level of understanding or skill. It involves accepting the discomfort of uncertainty, making mistakes, and persisting through difficulties to find solutions. While it may seem counterintuitive, allowing students to experience productive struggle can lead to deeper learning and enhanced resilience. The process may be challenging and uncomfortable at times, but facilitating it appropriately can lead to strong habits of mind, such as perseverance and thinking flexibly.

Research has shown that when students engage in productive struggle, they develop critical thinking skills, perseverance, and a growth mindset. As teachers, creating opportunities for productive struggle in the classroom can empower students to become more confident, self-reliant learners.

Unlike passive learning approaches where information is simply conveyed to students, productive struggle prompts learners to actively grapple with complex concepts or tasks that may be even slightly beyond their current level of understanding. This intentional introduction of difficulty sparks cognitive engagement as students confront obstacles, make mistakes, and persist in finding solutions. Productive struggle encourages learners to embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, ultimately leading to deeper learning. Eventually, and with consistent practice, students become more comfortable with enduring the tension of productive struggle and working through it.

Productive Struggle in reading

In a reading classroom, productive struggle manifests as students engaging with texts that pose challenges just beyond their current level of proficiency, prompting them to actively grapple with complex ideas, unfamiliar vocabulary, and nuanced themes. According to Blackburn (2018), productive struggle in reading involves students encountering texts that require them to apply critical thinking skills, make inferences, and engage in metacognitive reflective practices to process thinking. As students confront these challenges, they may experience moments of frustration or confusion, but with appropriate support and guidance from the teacher, they persist in their efforts to comprehend the text, ultimately leading to enhanced reading comprehension and literacy skills (Shanahan, 2017).

Productive struggle in math

In a math classroom, productive struggle is evident when students are presented with challenging mathematical problems that require them to apply critical thinking skills, explore multiple solution pathways, and persist in their efforts to find a solution. As emphasized by Boaler (2016), productive struggle in math involves students engaging in meaningful problem-solving tasks that prompt them to grapple with concepts beyond their current level of understanding, fostering a deeper conceptual understanding of mathematical principles. This process often entails students making conjectures, testing strategies, and revising their approaches as they encounter obstacles along the way (Carpenter et al., 2014). Through productive struggle, students develop resilience and perseverance and gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty and interconnectedness of mathematical concepts, ultimately leading to enhanced mathematical proficiency and problem-solving skills (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007).

THE BENEFITS OF PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE

Research has shown that engaging in productive struggle has numerous benefits for students. According to Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, productive struggle in mathematics leads to increased brain growth and improved problem-solving abilities. In her book “Mathematical Mindsets,” Boaler argues that when students grapple with challenging math problems, they develop a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and become more confident learners.

Furthermore, productive struggle fosters resilience and perseverance—the essential qualities students need to navigate the complexities of the 21st-century world. As students encounter obstacles and setbacks, they learn to persevere through difficulties, develop grit, and cultivate a growth mindset. These skills are not only critical for academic success but also for success in life.

Productive struggle in the classroom yields a myriad of benefits for students that extend far beyond academic achievement. Firstly, it cultivates resilience and grit, essential qualities for success in both academic and real-world settings. When students encounter challenging tasks and persevere through difficulties to find solutions, they develop the confidence and tenacity needed to overcome obstacles in their learning journey and beyond. This resilience not only equips students with the ability to bounce back from setbacks but also instills a sense of agency and self-efficacy as they realize their capacity to tackle difficult problems and achieve their goals.

Secondly, productive struggle promotes deeper learning and critical thinking skills by prompting students to engage in active sense-making and problem-solving. Rather than passively consuming information, students are encouraged to wrestle with complex concepts, draw connections, and explore multiple solutions. This process of cognitive engagement leads to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and enhances the retention of knowledge. Moreover, by grappling with challenging tasks, students develop essential critical thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, preparing them to navigate the complexities of the 21st-century world where adaptability and problem-solving prowess are highly valued. Overall, the benefits of productive struggle in the classroom extend far beyond academic achievement, fostering resilience, critical thinking, and a growth mindset that empowers students to thrive in all aspects of their lives.

PRACTICAL classroom STRATEGIES FOR PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE

Select challenging, grade-level texts and tasks

Choose tasks or problems that are intellectually stimulating and require students to stretch their thinking. These tasks should be achievable but not overly easy, encouraging students to grapple with concepts and explore multiple solutions.

Integrating challenging, grade-level texts and tasks in the classroom to support productive struggle involves careful selection of materials and implementation strategies. Teachers can start by choosing texts that align with grade-level standards but also offer opportunities for deeper exploration and critical thinking (Shanahan, 2017). These texts should present students with complex ideas, unfamiliar vocabulary, and nuanced themes that require them to engage in active sense-making and problem-solving (Pyle et al., 2020). 

Additionally, teachers can design tasks that prompt students to apply higher-order thinking skills, make connections between the text and real-world experiences, and engage in collaborative discussions to deepen their understanding (Duke & Pearson, 2002). By providing appropriate scaffolding and support, such as guiding questions, modeling of strategies, and peer collaboration, teachers can create an environment where students feel empowered to tackle challenging tasks and persist through difficulties, ultimately leading to enhanced learning outcomes and the development of critical literacy skills.

Provide a supportive environment where risk-taking is encouraged

Create a supportive classroom environment where students feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. Emphasize that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process and encourage a growth mindset.

Creating a supportive classroom environment where risk-taking is encouraged involves fostering a culture of trust, acceptance, and a growth mindset. Educators can start by building strong relationships with their students and establishing clear expectations that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process (Dweck, 2006). By praising effort and persistence rather than solely focusing on correct answers, teachers can promote a growth mindset and help students develop a positive attitude toward taking academic risks (Boaler, 2016).

Implementing collaborative learning activities and providing opportunities for students to share their ideas and learn from one another’s perspectives can further cultivate a sense of belonging and encourage risk-taking (Hattie, 2012). By creating a safe and supportive classroom environment where students feel empowered to take risks and learn from their mistakes, educators can foster a culture of curiosity, innovation, and continuous growth.

Welcome, and create structures for, purposeful collaboration

Foster collaboration among students by incorporating group work or peer-to-peer discussions. Working together allows students to share ideas, learn from each other’s perspectives, and overcome challenges collectively.

Encouraging collaboration in class and creating structures for purposeful collaboration involves designing activities that promote active engagement, communication, and teamwork among students. One effective approach is to implement collaborative learning strategies such as group projects, peer tutoring, or cooperative learning tasks (Johnson et al., 2014). These activities not only foster a sense of community and belonging but also provide opportunities for students to share their ideas, perspectives, and expertise with their peers.

Additionally, establishing clear roles and responsibilities within groups, setting goals for collaborative tasks, and providing structured protocols for communication and decision-making can help ensure that collaboration is purposeful and productive (Slavin, 2014). By creating a supportive framework for collaboration and incorporating evidence-based strategies for effective teamwork, educators can empower students to work together towards common goals, enhance their interpersonal skills, and achieve deeper learning outcomes.

Offer appropriate scaffolding for students who need it

Provide scaffolding or support structures to help students navigate difficult tasks. This could include breaking down complex problems into smaller steps, offering guiding questions, or providing additional resources.

Implementing appropriate instructional scaffolds to support productive struggle involves providing strategic support and guidance to students as they engage with challenging tasks. One effective method is to offer scaffolding techniques such as providing models, prompts, or cues to help students navigate complex problems. By breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps and offering support at critical points in the learning process, educators can empower students to tackle challenging tasks with confidence and independence (Van de Pol et al., 2010).

Once students gain proficiency and confidence, gradually fading scaffolding away allows them to take on increasing levels of responsibility for their learning. By incorporating evidence-based scaffolding techniques into instruction, educators can create a supportive learning environment where students are encouraged to embrace challenges, persist through difficulties, and achieve deeper levels of understanding (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007).

Promote inquiry and reflection

Encourage students to reflect on their learning experiences, including the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. Reflection fosters metacognitive skills and helps students develop strategies for future problem-solving.

Promoting inquiry and reflection is essential to supporting productive struggle in the classroom, as it encourages students to actively engage with challenging tasks and make sense of their learning experiences. By fostering a culture of inquiry, educators can encourage students to ask questions, explore ideas, and seek out solutions independently (Kuhn, 2015). Additionally, providing opportunities for students to reflect on their learning process, including the challenges they encountered and the strategies they employed to overcome them, can help them develop metacognitive skills and become more self-aware learners. Through inquiry and reflection, students not only deepen their understanding of the material but also become more resilient, resourceful, and self-directed in their learning journey (Bransford et al., 2000).

Takeaways

  • Productive struggle and failing forward are both invaluable concepts in the classroom, offering students opportunities for growth, resilience, and deeper learning. 
  • Productive struggle, as outlined by Boaler (2016), involves engaging students in challenging tasks that prompt them to grapple with complex concepts beyond their current level of understanding. 
  • Through this process, students learn to persevere through difficulties, develop critical thinking skills, and cultivate a growth mindset, as emphasized by Dweck (2006), where they view challenges as opportunities for growth rather than obstacles to be avoided. Similarly, failing forward, as articulated by Maxwell (2000), encourages students to view failures as stepping stones to success, promoting a culture where mistakes are seen as valuable learning opportunities rather than indicators of incompetence. 
  • By embracing productive struggle and failing forward in the classroom, students learn to overcome obstacles with resilience and perseverance, ultimately leading to deeper learning and enhanced academic achievement (Boaler, 2019; Dweck, 2017). These concepts not only foster a positive learning environment but also empower students to become confident, self-directed learners who are equipped to navigate the complexities of the 21st-century world.

References

  • Blackburn, B. (2018). Productive Struggle is a Learner’s Sweet Spot. ASCD.
  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
  • Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Carpenter, T. P., Fennema, E., Franke, M. L., Levi, L., & Empson, S. B. (2014). Children’s mathematics:
  • Cognitively guided instruction (2nd ed.). Heinemann.
  • Cowen, Ellie. “Harnessing the Power of Productive Struggle.” (2016). Edutopia.
  • Duke, Nell & Pearson, P.. (2002). Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension. What research has to say about reading instruction. 3. 10.1598/0872071774.10. 
  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
  • Hattie, J. A. C. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.
  • Hiebert, J., & Grouws, D. A. (2007). The Effects of Classroom Mathematics Teaching on Students’ Learning. In F. Lester (Ed.), Second Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning (pp. 371-404). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
  • Hmelo-Silver , C.E., Duncan, R.G. & Chinn, C.A. (2007) Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006), Educational Psychologist, 42:2, 99-107, DOI: 10.1080/00461520701263368
  • Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. and Smith, K. (2014) Cooperative Learning: Improving University Instruction by Basing Practice on Validated Theory. In: Davidson, N., Major, C. and Michaelsen, L., Eds., Small-Group Learning in Higher Education: Cooperative, Collaborative, Problem-Based and Team-Based Learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(4). http://personal.cege.umn.edu/~smith/docs/Johnson-Johnson-Smith-Cooperative_Learning-JECT-Small_Group_Learning-draft.pdf
  • Kuhn, D. (2015). Thinking Together and Alone. Educational Researcher, 44(1), 46-53. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X15569530
  • Maxwell, J. (2000). Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success. HarperCollins Leadership.
  • Pollock, E. (2017). The importance of productive struggle. Educational Leadership, 74(4), 54-59.
  • “Productive Struggle.” Renaissance EdWords. 
  • Pyle, A., DeLuca, C., Danniels, E., and Wickstrom, H. (2020). A Model for Assessment in Play-Based Kindergarten Education. Am. Educ. Res. J. 57, 2251–2292. doi: 10.3102/0002831220908800
  • Shananan, T. (2017). “How should we combine reading and writing?” Shanahan on Literacy.
  • Slavin, R. E. (2014). Cooperative learning and academic achievement: Why does groupwork work? Anales de Psicología, 30(3), 785–791.
  • van de Pol, J., Volman, M. & Beishuizen, J. Scaffolding in Teacher–Student Interaction: A Decade of Research. Educ Psychol Rev 22, 271–296 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-010-9127-6

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