As educators, we hear a lot about productive struggle, especially when it comes to math. But letting students struggle is difficult for parents and family members, and even for teachers who understand that it’s an important part of learning.

Recently, at Heritage Elementary School, we’ve had the opportunity to focus a bit more tightly on productive struggle.

Let them be frustrated!

In my 5th-grade classroom we use ST Math, a visual math program that asks students to use spatial-temporal reasoning to solve puzzles and move a penguin named JiJi from one side of the screen to the other. By design, there are no instructions, so sometimes my students get frustrated.

Related content: How a productive struggle motivates students in math

They see what’s happening on the screen, but that doesn’t mean they understand what they’re supposed to do. Nevertheless, we ask them to try to figure it out and then try again. We ask them to try nine times, in fact, before they ask us for help. Every time they fail a dot appears on the screen. Once they’ve accrued nine dots, we ask them, “What did you try? What happened when you tried that?” They can replay it on their screen as well, so we can actually go back and look at what happened and think through it with them.

About the Author:

Karrie Murdock teaches 5th grade at Heritage Elementary School. She can be reached at

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