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How ‘productive struggle’ can lead to deeper learning

Aoife Dempsey, chief technology officer at Triumph Learning, shares suggestions for implementing ‘productive struggle’ in your schools

productive-struggle-learningThe new school year provides opportunities to implement fresh learning strategies in the classroom. Some students might struggle getting back into the rhythm of the school year, and others might experience long-term challenges.

To address these needs, consider developing a curriculum that emphasizes “productive struggle.” Here’s what you’ll need to know about making it work in the classroom.

What is productive struggle?

Students can experience productive struggle when given a task slightly beyond their abilities. As educators provide support for tackling a challenging problem through different approaches, they can help build critical thinking skills and develop grit. The objective isn’t necessarily to get to the right answer, but to engage in this process to advance learning and develop perseverance.

Students need a safe environment to take risks and struggle.

It’s uncomfortable to struggle, but struggling—falling down and getting back up—is an important facet to learning. Productive struggle is not about being in pain or becoming frustrated. To help students embrace struggle as part of the learning process, we have to let them know that it’s OK not to know the answer. The goal is to participate in the discovery process. In addition, educators are there to support students when they get stuck.

(Next page: How productive struggle helps students ‘learn how to learn’—and how you can incorporate it into your teaching)

Productive struggle can be experienced as a class, in a small group, or as individuals.

It can be a positive, shared experience where students engage in discourse and discuss ideas. In fact, a great way to promote productive struggle in the classroom is to start with a small group. Provide a challenging problem, and allow students to work together to figure out ways to break it down and create a plan towards a solution. If the group gets stuck, you can provide a hint, but don’t give away the answer or steps to solving the problem. At the end, wrap up by reflecting on what transpired, the misconceptions that might have arisen, and what questions and ideas helped to generate the key insights.

Through productive struggle, students learn to understand their thought process.

A key component to productive struggle is to investigate how someone thinks through a task, also known as metacognition. Teachers promoting productive struggle in their classrooms investigate with their students how certain lines of thinking and strategy work—and don’t work—in different situations. Students experiencing productive struggle might begin to understand and control their cognitive processes.

For example, during productive struggle, students might start with one approach to solve a problem but then get an idea to pursue a different approach. They soon will see where one approach works better in certain situations than others. This can naturally lead to students being more adaptive and strategic when dealing with challenging tasks.

There are resources and tools available to help promote productive struggle.

Teachers are not alone promoting productive struggle in their classrooms. Discussing and sharing ideas for productive struggle with other teachers is a perfect place to start. There are curriculum materials with scaffolding to provide students with hints when they need help. There are also valuable technology tools with personalization and scaffolding that can support educators and students on the productive-struggle journey.

Aoife Dempsey is the chief technology officer at Triumph Learning, a producer of critically acclaimed K-12 texts and interactive digital tools. She developed the company’s most recent learning platform, Waggle, a personalized, smart practice solution that champions productive struggle. 

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