The Productive Struggle

The term “productive struggle” has been around since the beginning of Common Core (probably even before) and has often been a concept that teachers have been encouraged to consider when lesson planning and creating resources for their students. Productive struggles happen when challenging tasks are met and learners use strategies and tools to try various solutions while understanding that the first solution may not work but also knowing that they will not give up. Experiencing productive struggle can help set students up for working through potentially stressful and anxiety-inducing situations and completing them with a sense of confidence and pride. How powerful would it be if we could reduce the anxiety and pressure that students feel by giving them time to practice using various strategies to arrive at a solution for a complex problem? When we give opportunities to productively struggle, we are helping our students gain skills in critical thinking, problem solving, reflecting and showing grit.

Feeling Supported

Before giving our learners something that, on first glance, may seem impossible, it is important to make sure that we have set up routines where they know that they will be supported in any strategy they choose – except giving up. Support can come in the form of team work, use of technology, communication – anything that helps our students know that they are helping their brains grow by working through things that seem impossible. In this way, productively struggling can have a lasting impact on the classroom community by showing everyone how effective it is to work together and feel supported.


All Grade Levels, All Subjects

When I was researching this topic, I found so many examples of math in upper grades. However, there are opportunities to pose challenges that will allow your learners to experience how to productively struggle in all subject areas, that simply means allowing your learners to show determination in figuring something out. There is no limit to age or subject when it comes to struggling through difficult problems:

“…giving students an opportunity to struggle through a difficult problem with a clear learning goal in mind, combined with just enough stretch and strategic assistance, students can develop lasting connections about important ideas, increased capacity for productive struggle, and durable skills for solving novel problems in life.”

Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle

Brad Ermeling, James Hiebert, and Ron Gallimore

As the quote above notes, it is important to have a learning goal and make sure that there is some assistance when the students are facing anything that they will struggle with. Assistance may come in the form of a help chart, a buddy in the class, the opportunity to do online research, a strategy that was taught earlier, small group support…any resources that will help our students feel like they are getting somewhere and making progress instead of feeling anxious and stressed.

When opportunities to experience these challenges come up in class, it helps students get in the mindset of figuring it out and using grit to continue working towards a solution. The idea is that experiencing the productive struggle will eventually lead to less testing anxiety because students know they have overcome complex challenges in the past and they can do it!


Social Emotional Learning Connections

Productive struggle can help our learners better face challenges with a sense of confidence and pride especially when they have faced other challenges and felt supported and prepared for the task ahead.

  • Building a stronger classroom community: students work together to resolve problems and begin to rely on one another
  • Grit: students learn to try multiple strategies and use every resource they have been given while following through and making sure that the challenge is completed
  • Support: students know that they are able to get resources and strategize with each other in order to figure out a solution that will work
  • Taking risks: students are more confident in trying new things because they are not forced into a “one answer is the only answer” mentality all of the time – I am not saying that there are not times when there is only one answer, but I am saying that our classrooms should have a balance between things that you can google and figure out and things that you need to use critical thinking to solve


Teachers Productively Struggling

John Spencer wrote a great article recently about teachers experiencing productive struggles and connected it to feeling empathy for what our learners go through: Why Teachers Should Experience Productive Struggle. If time allows, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read (or listen to, this is also a podcast), this article. I would also encourage you to think about:

  • What opportunities do your student have to productively struggle?
  • How will this better impact their education and future?
  • What strategies do you have or in place or what strategies do you plan to implement to make sure that your learners feel supported?



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