How to support students’ productive struggle

Creating a classroom climate where it is OK to make mistakes and encourages students to take risks is key
By: | December 16, 2019
Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, and a featured speaker at FETC.

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, and was a featured speaker at FETC.

Our school leaders and intervention professionals’ held a fall data meeting, and one of our discussions focused on the productive struggle of learners. 

The first thought I had is that we often ask teachers not to do the heavy lifting. Students don’t come to school to watch teachers work, so how do we shift to having students work more?

Reworking the learning block

I know how I feel when I attempt to learn something new. I also remember how I felt when I picked up a golf club for the first time. When you tried something new, did you get it the first time? Or did it take multiple attempts and perseverance to reach your goal or learn the skill? How did you feel when you reached it?

Now, think about your classroom or school. How much instruction time is spent with teachers in control of the lessons? How much of the learning block do the students work?  

Stanford University professor Carol Dweck says: “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their confidence.”

I think this is vital in education. In a safe and challenging learning environment, students should have opportunities for productive struggle. Implementing tasks that promote reasoning and problem-solving is a great place to start. These tasks will encourage meaningful discourse and allow teachers to pose purposeful questions.

Productive struggle is an “effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching—that builds useful, lasting understanding and skill,” according to “The Effects of Classroom Mathematics Teaching on Students’ Learning,a chapter from the Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning (Information Age Publishing, 2007)It is also “when students grapple with the issues and are able to come up with a solution themselves, developing persistence and resilience in pursuing and attaining the learning goal or understanding,”according to How to Support Struggling Students (ASCD, 2010).

How can we shift our instruction and mindset? Start with the planning stage, and consider these strategies:                                                   

  •     developing learning goals that detail what students will take away from the lesson
  •     identifying evidence of what students say or do and products that will provide information about their understanding
  •     launching a lesson that activates prior knowledge so students can draw on their experiences during the learning task
  •     compiling essential questions that you want students to be able to answer throughout the lesson
  •     turning the class over to students, who will complete the main activity of the lesson

Encouraging risk-taking, providing feedback

Giving opportunities for productive struggle is part of learning and encourages creativity. More opportunities for independence will build authentic student engagement and perseverance. This student work time will also give teachers opportunities for informal assessment, intervention and feedback. 


Read: Tips for increasing student voice


Without struggle or feedback, there cannot be progress or growth. Providing opportunities for students to struggle and learn will lead to learning perseverance. Often, when faced with a challenge, people experience discomfort. However, with practice, they become more comfortable with enduring the discomfort and working through it. This perseverance will lead to the satisfaction of overcoming a challenging problem, question or task. 

In today’s “everyone wins” culture, we have moved away from productive struggle. We should acknowledge students more for their perseverance and effort, and then provide them with specific feedback on their progress. Giving advice and praise is not feedback. A principle to action report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 2014 pointed out: “To support students, we must consider what they know and then support them to figure out what they need to know.” And I agree.

This process of increasing productive struggle starts with educators. We must teach students how to support themselves and then others in their productive struggle. Creating a classroom climate where it is OK to make mistakes and that encourages students to take risks is a start. A culture where mistakes are expected, respected and then corrected is a culture where students will try more and then learn more.

A culture where mistakes are expected, respected and then corrected is a culture where students will try more and then learn more.

Planning for the struggle

Instead of over-scaffolding or giving prompts, I recommend planning for the struggle. Teachers can:

  •     anticipate what students might struggle with during a lesson and prepare
  •     give students time to struggle with tasks and ask questions
  •     build a culture where confusion and mistakes are part of learning
  •     praise students for their efforts
  •     help students realize that the struggle will take time, and provide strategies for what they can do when they are stuck

Productive struggle promotes retention and learning, and moves away from simply cramming for a quiz or memorizing facts. It gives students the tools to solve a problem and lessens their dependency on asking for answers. Our job as educators is to teach kids how to think—not what to think.


Matthew X. Joseph is the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts. He was a featured speaker at DA’s FETC.


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