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Productive Struggle

by Sixth Grade Teacher Caroline Ivey

A productive struggle is giving students the opportunity to work at a task before immediately assisting. It causes the student to persevere in their thinking and to grow their problem solving skills. As the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development states in an article on this topic, “That may sound counterintuitive, since many of us assume that helping students learn means protecting them from negative feelings of frustration. But for students to become independent learners, they must learn to persist in the face of challenge.” In productive struggle, the challenges are helping build neurological pathways in the brain that better support learning. 

The goal of productive struggle is to grow through challenges. For it to be effective, you have to be intentional about how it is set up. Challenges with no support just lead to frustration. If you are playing in your first tennis tournament, competing against Serena Williams would not be a helpful challenge. Therefore, for a struggle to be beneficial, it has to start as attainable. Also, these struggles need to come in supportive environments. Teachers are there to support, encourage, and guide, but we have to give students time to think. Then, as students are working, we come alongside them with guiding questions or prompts, not simply answers. If we only give answers, students are losing the opportunity to think. Our goal as educators is to help students learn how to think; therefore, we need to give them opportunities to think critically.  

In sixth grade math, productive struggle is a vital component of helping students become more independent and grow in their problem solving skills.  At the end of every unit, we do a math project that requires some element of critical thinking. These projects allow students to work not only on the skills that we just covered, but also to practice thinking critically. Therefore, we give the students time to think and try which helps grow them to become more independent thinkers. 

Lastly, how can students continue to grow at home? Allow for productive struggle. In the age of google and instantaneous answers, let your child struggle in an encouraging, supportive environment. This allows them to grow not only in perseverance but also in problem solving skills.  

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