Steven Weber

Superintendent or Asst Super

Fayetteville, AR

Interests: Curriculum design and...

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Productive Struggle

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This is the second in a four-part series on March Madness.
(2 of 4)

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At the end of the college basketball season, Americans become fixated on the NCAA Tournament. March Madness begins with fans and non-fans, who don’t watch college basketball during the regular season, completing their brackets. Some people choose the number one seeds to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, while others select the underdog or ‘sleeper’ teams to upset the teams with the best records. Education closely mirrors March Madness. When teams fall behind by ten or more points, they must persevere. Coaches have put their teams through practice, drills, conditioning, and competition against stronger opponents in order to prepare for the challenges of advancing to the next round of the NCAA Tournament.

Productive Struggle allows athletes to simulate game conditions. If the head coach made practice a comfortable experience, it would be difficult to perform against a challenging opponent. In classrooms, allowing productive struggle to occur consumes more class time. But retention is undermined when learning is frictionless. Purposeful struggle today means less re-teaching tomorrow (Finley, 2014).

Do students in your classroom enter a risk free classroom or do they engage in productive struggle on a regular basis? Some teachers are reluctant to assign challenging work. We swoop in to support struggling learners and often give them assignments that are far below grade level expectations.

Can you identify the last time your assignment required students to engage in a productive struggle? What does a productive struggle look like? The Mathematics Teaching Practices describe what it looks like in K-12 math classes: “Effective teaching of mathematics consistently provides students, individually and collectively, with opportunities and supports to engage in productive struggle as they grapple with mathematical ideas and relationships” (NCTM, 2014, Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All). Students develop deeper understanding when they have time to struggle. Too often, U.S. classrooms provide a safe zone where failure is not an option. It is not an option, because students are spoon fed the correct answer, rather than asking students to create, collaborate, think critically, analyze, write, and explore.

“In a productive struggle, 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” (Allen, 2012, A Conversation with Author and Educator Robyn Jackson). Classroom assignments should be designed with the end in mind. “In other words, if we want students to be able to apply their learning via autonomous performance, we need to design our curriculum backward from that goal” (McTighe and Wiggins, 2012, p. 9). Once teachers identify the learning goal, they should design assignments and assessments that allow students to struggle.

If students graduate from our K-12 schools without a struggle, we have failed to prepare our youth for life. The next time you see a student floundering, let him swim for awhile. Students benefit from productive struggle. Great coaches understand the benefits of pushing athletes to their limit in practice. Productive struggle does not mean we allow students to fail. Productive struggle is designed to prepare students for greater challenges and opportunities at the next level. College basketball coaches don’t make it to the Final Four by allowing players to coast through practice.

Benefits of a Productive Struggle

  • Deeper Understanding

  • Perseverance

  • Self-Confidence

  • Critical Thinking

  • Collaboration

  • Problem Solving

  • Growth Mindset

  • Conceptual Understanding

  • Appreciation for Multiple Perspectives

  • Independence

4 Questions For Teacher Teams

     1.  What does productive struggle look like in our classroom?

     2.  Can you recall a time when you provided too much support and the student(s) would have benefited from productive struggle?

     3.  How can teachers use scaffolding to support struggling learners, without providing students with the answer?  What types of scaffolding or scaffolding strategies do you use with students?

     4. How do you get students to persevere through the task?

This is the second in a four part series on March Madness.

(2 of 4)
Series Topics

1 of 4   Full Court Press

2 of 4   Productive Struggle

3 of 4   Number 1 Seed

4 of 4   4th Quarter Mindset

Dr. Steven Weber is the Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning with Fayetteville Public Schools (Arkansas). Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

1 Comment

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Cassie Erkens

21 Mar 18, 10:27 AM

Love the concept of productive struggle! Productive struggle is never struggle for struggle's sake. It is not simply giving harder problems that require students to squirm for longer periods of time. The word "productive" comes with qualifiers for me: worthy, relevant, surmountable, curiosity-based, and engaging. Loved your quote "retention is undermined when learning is frictionless." Powerful ideas and provocative questions, Dr. Weber! Thanks!

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