Steven Weber

Superintendent or Asst Super

Fayetteville, AR

Interests: Curriculum design and...

  • Posted 2 Years ago
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The Tassel Is Worth The Hassle

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Across the United States, children are being raised in a society where “Every child is a winner.”  In T-Ball leagues, every player receives a participation trophy. There are basketball leagues that don’t have scoreboards. At the end of the game, both teams win. Young athletes are taught “If you had fun, you won.” As a parent, I understand the rationale behind such youth league rules. Six year old basketball is not the Final Four and young players can benefit from playing a game for fun. There are psychological side effects to sorting children into winners and losers at a young age, not to mention it is unethical. 


Parenting strategies have also changed over the past twenty years. While parents are quick to take the training wheels off their child’s first bike, they provide unwavering support in other areas. Parents often discourage risk taking. They don’t allow children to climb on playground equipment, play in a sandbox, or run on the sidewalk. At the community swimming pool, older children swim with floaties and are not allowed to swim in the deep end. Some families have tutors for their kindergartener and purchase test prep materials in order to get a head start over the competition. When was the last time you drove through your neighborhood and saw a group of children playing a game or riding bikes? The goal of this article is to focus on the importance of struggle in child growth and development, not to criticize parenting techniques.


At a high school graduation ceremony, I heard the principal tell seniors ‘The tassel is worth the hassle.” Do students in your classroom enter a risk free classroom or do they engage in productive struggle on a regular basis? The every child is a winner mentality has slipped into classrooms. We are reluctant to grade a student’s assignment using a red ink pen. When a second grader cannot provide an answer, the teacher often shares the correct answer with the class. We swoop in to support struggling learners and we 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. While society may design soft surfaces on playgrounds and success for all leagues, the world asks students to persevere and problem solve. 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.


Benefits of a Productive Struggle


  • Deeper Understanding

  • Perseverance

  • Self-Confidence

  • Critical Thinking

  • Collaboration

  • Problem Solving

  • Growth Mindset

  • Conceptual Understanding

  • Inquiry Learning Skills

  • Appreciation for Multiple Perspectives

  • Independence


This list looks like the skills employers seek in employees. A productive struggle prepares students for life and work.



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).

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