Changing Our Thinking: Allowing Productive Struggle

Changing Our Thinking: Allowing Productive Struggle

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing allowing productive struggle.  

What is Productive Struggle?

I’m going to tell the simplified story of how I learned to ride a bike. First I had a tricycle when I was young. I learned how to pedal and move it with the handles. I started to grow out of that tricycle and my younger brother could have used it so my parents got me a two-wheel bike with training wheels. Once I got the hang of riding it around with training wheels they made the training wheels uneven so I would tip a little back and forth as I rode. This helped me start to learn balance. One summer both of my cousins who were my age were not using training wheels and I decided that I no longer needed them. My dad took them off and I put on my helmet, determined to master riding a two-wheeler. My dad gave me directions and started running while holding on to the seat of the bike. I begged him not to let go but he did anyway. I moved forward a little and then fell to the ground. My dad came over and calmed me down and told me I needed to do something. I needed to steer or pedal it wouldn’t work if I didn’t do anything. So we tried again. My dad ran and let go of the bike and a steered a little and then fell to the ground. My dad again came over and helped me up. This time he wanted me to pedal. I wasn’t so sure about pedaling. That meant I would keep going and I might even go faster than I wanted to go. We tried again. This time I pedaled and steered and managed to go farther than before when I hit a rut in the ground and fell over. Again and again, my dad patiently helped me up and we tried again. Soon he wasn’t running over to me every time I fell. He was having me bring my bike back to him. Slowly I started to gain more and more independence. Finally, I could steer and pedal and not fall over for long periods of time. I was riding a two-wheeler. My dad allowed me to struggle forward. At no point did he take my bike away from me and do it for me. That wouldn’t have worked out and seems silly to actually think about.

Productive struggle is allowing students time to fail forward just like I had on my bike. Productive struggle is so important and too often as teachers we swoop and save instead of letting students fail forward. 

Why Is Swooping A Problem?

Imagine a classroom where kids are learning about place value. A student builds the number 23 with five tens instead of two tens and five ones. The teacher looks at the child and says, “no remember twenty-three two tens and three ones.” The child then fixes their number and now they understand place value… uh… no. Now they got this one problem right but because they were basically told the answer. 

A child is reading a book and they get stuck on the word like. The teacher says remember this is a silent e so the i says its name. L-i-k, like. The child mumbles along with the teacher and the teacher says, “good you got it!”

A writer is writing a story with no punctuation and the teacher comes over and adds punctuation with a pen to the child’s’ writing. 

The examples can go on and on. So often when children make mistakes teachers fix the mistakes. The problem with doing that is that we are robbing children of learning moments. When I swoop in to solve all the problems a student could encounter how do they become stronger? What did they learn this time that will help them solve the next problem? 

What to do Instead

For a long time, the role of the teacher was to help students fix mistakes. I’m not saying this isn’t the role anymore but the role is more of a facilitator of learning. If all of my students don’t understand a certain skill or strategy it isn’t my job to correct them so they no longer have mistakes. It is my job to help them recognize their mistakes and continue to fail forward unit they understand. 

Let’s go back to the base-10 example. This happens quite frequently in the grade 1 classroom. This child doesn’t yet see 10s and ones. If they start counting by ones then they continue to count by ones. If they start counting by tens they continue to start counting by tens. They don’t yet see the longs and cubes as worth different values. What if, instead of correcting him I asked him a question that would push his thinking forward. What if I asked, “how much is this worth” holding up a long. He could count the individual squares and determine that it is 10. Then I could ask, “so how many do you have here?” He could count by ones or tens and determine that he had 50. After that I could ask, “now what can you do so that you have only 23?” I could then let him go back and try again. Maybe this time he grabs 5 cubes. Maybe he goes back and gets three tens and two ones. Even if he just groups his tens into a group of three and a group of three he has begun to fail forward or productively struggle. If he continues to productively struggle I allow it. Productive struggle is good and it is so important. 

When a struggle becomes frustrating I would come in with some intentional teaching and modeling for the student. Then we could work together to solve a few problems then the student could try on their own. As long as a struggle is productive and the child is getting bit by bit more correct each time they’re wrong I should allow it. I’m allowing students to build understandings and develop a conceptual understanding on their own. 

What I've Learned

It is really easy to swoop and save or to remove all obstacles from a child’s path but it just isn’t helpful to them. I work hard to allow productive struggle in all of my students. I still haven’t mastered it yet but I too continue to productively struggle forward as a teacher. 

Let me know your thoughts and questions regarding productive struggle in the comments below! I would love to hear from you! 

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