In education, a big challenge is how to teach students what do to do when they don’t know what to do--here's where productive struggle shines

3 ways to engage students in productive struggle

In education, a big challenge is how to teach students what to do when they don’t know what to do

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Think about it for a minute. You are facing a new challenge – whether it be learning to fix a burst pipe, tackling a new hobby, or just struggling to figure something out. What do you do?

I’ve asked hundreds of people this question and the first thing they often say is, “I Google it.” (Then I joke about the times before the internet when we needed to spend time looking through the Encyclopedia Britannica to find our answers.)

In education, a big challenge is how to teach students what do to do when they don’t know what to do. What systems are needed for productive struggle to take place in classrooms and schools? How do students learn to struggle so they can eventually problem solve for themselves?

Research in neuroscience tells us our brains grow new neuro-pathways when we are at the edge of challenge. It’s often called “The Goldilocks Principle” of learning – it can’t be too easy or too hard, it needs to be just right. 

The term “productive struggle” is used a lot in education, but what does that really mean for teaching and learning?

Understanding productive struggle

James Nottingham has a wonderful visual on his website called the “learning pit.” It depicts what happens to our brains when we are learning something new and are struggling, and then how we work our way through the struggle to come out on the other side of the learning. 

Unfortunately, many students (and teachers) find themselves stuck in the pit of struggle. To get out of the pit, it’s important to intentionally build resiliency skills.

Teaching students (and teachers) how to plan, design, and support productive struggle is a necessary task for school and district leaders. It involves designing environments that promote productive struggle and using frameworks that create psychological safe spaces for students and teachers alike to try, struggle, make mistakes, and try again.

So how do you go about this?

Best practices for supporting productive struggle

Below are three ways to help build positive relationships while supporting productive struggle in classrooms and across schools.

Prioritize relationships with students (and teachers). First and foremost, for students to be able to be present and want to begin to struggle, they need to believe their teacher cares for them. This is an essential first step in every aspect of education – when students know their teacher cares, they will show up, work harder, and be present for any learning challenge. 

Furthermore, when students have a strong and trusting relationship with their teacher, they will release oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that does so much good in their brains to promote learning.

Create the right systems for struggle.  Any teacher knows that their lives are made easier when they have strong classroom routines and cultures that guide the day-to-day business in the classroom. This can be applied to productive struggle, as well. 

A learning framework is one way teachers can help support students in tackling difficult learning situations. For example, with the Try-Discuss-Connect math framework students are asked to make sense of the given problem they are trying to solve and then work to solve it independently. Next, they turn and share their thinking with partners or in small groups, as teachers walk around and listen to the conversations. Then the teacher leads a whole-class discussion around the students’ thinking and solutions before, finally, helping students make connections with the math strategies used and applying those strategies to a new problem.

Normalize Mistakes. It is easy for students (and teachers) to not try something because they are scared of failing. However, our brains actually grow when we make mistakes and failing is a critical part of learning. 

A couple of ways to intentionally create a classroom environment where mistakes are welcome include:

  • Ask teachers to share their mistakes with students (…and, as school or district leaders, share your mistakes with teachers!) AND then celebrate those mistakes. An easy way to do this is using the “failure, ta-da” technique. One person shares a time they made a mistake and everyone claps for them – that simple! If students have the opportunity to clap when the teacher makes a mistake, it starts to highlight making mistakes are OK.
  • Suggest teachers making a ‘mistake board’ or having a ‘mistake jar’ in their class. When students see or hear a mistake, they can post it anonymously in the jar or on the board. Then, once a week, everyone can clap for those mistakes.  

Learning is one of the most vulnerable things teachers can ask students to do. And, as such, creating the right environments for learning and cultivating learning partnerships with students is so important. It’s through this essential work of teachers that all students will reach their full potential.

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