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Productive Struggle

by Mardi Gale
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A colleague of mine used to say there is “benign stress” and “killer stress.” She was convinced that it is a positive thing to undergo “benign stress” as we learn new things, but that when that stress became overwhelming — killer stress, as she called it — it was no longer an opportunity to learn but would cause the learner to shut down. She shared these thoughts years before the discussion of fixed vs. growth mindsets but her thinking did coincide with the notion of learning that comes from a state of disequilibrium.

For years, philosophers have been saying that nothing worth having comes without some effort. So why are we so quick to jump to the aid of our students, thereby removing the opportunity to learn from grappling with the mathematics?

The NCTM published Principles to Actions, Cathy Seeley and others, will point us to examining our belief systems. While that’s a good place to begin, we can also consider what about the classroom environment might not be supportive of “productive struggle.” When I ask educators why they think students are not put into the position of productive struggle, the responses include: it undermines their self-confidence; students will stop working if they have to struggle and just wait for assistance; students don’t know how to deal with something that doesn’t come easily; and the ever present response: “we don’t have time.”

My initial take on these sorts of responses is: we don’t have time not to let them struggle as they develop their thinking and reasoning skills, along with prescriptive feedback to promote a growth mindset. How do we expect students to become problem solvers if they never really encounter a problem? And self-confidence is built through accomplishments — real accomplishments, not just answer getting and superficial praise. 

I also want to make a bid for trusting our children…how can we know what they might be able to do if we don’t present them with the opportunities to dig in and persevere? 

I encourage you to look at the Principles to Action and to consider guiding students through a process to support them through productive struggle as they develop flexibility and reasoning skills in mathematics. Principles to Action was written as a complement to the Common Core State Standards.  The CCSS help us to know what students need to know and be able to do, and the Principles to Action helps us get it done by examining the guiding principles for school mathematics: teaching and learning, access and equity, curriculum, tools and technology, assessment, and professionalism. Principles to Action also identifies eight effective teaching practices and provides vignettes to illustrate each of them.  This is a great resource for moving mathematics education forward.


To learn more about productive struggle in the classroom and related ideas, watch Dr. Carol Dweck discuss what the growth mindset is and how teachers can promote it, revisit Mardi Gale's previous blog post Virtues of Common Core Math, and investigate the collections Planning Instruction with Prescriptive Feedback and Planning Instruction with Higher Order Questioning

Senior Research Associate, Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM), WestEd

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