Productive Struggle in a Math Classroom

Productive struggle works well when the student is motivated to want to solve a difficult problem.

What is Productive Struggle?
Productive struggle is the process of effortful learning that develops grit and creative problem solving.

When students face problems they don’t immediately know how to solve, we don’t want them to give up. We want them to engage in making connections to things they already know, think creatively and try different avenues towards solutions.
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In an Ignite session (which motivated me to write this post) Robert Kaplinsky shared a photo of a student learning how to ride a bicycle as an example of productive struggle. The important thing that he didn’t mention is that in the case of learning to ride a bike the learner is usually highly motivated to want to learn to ride that bicycle because he/she sees other children effortlessly bike riding so the student wants to do that as well. The key to success is motivation. So when struggle appears necessary the learner is willing to do what it takes to ride a bike successfully.

In math class students aren’t motivated in the same way to solve conventional math problems. So it’s important for the teacher to create a context in math class where the student is interested in the problem so they will be willing to take on the challenge of solving it. (1) Also struggling will not always produce the desired results. So taking failure in stride is important so that students will not give up prematurely when they face a non-routine problem.

Teachers need to know when to step in and help or hold back so that the student will experience the satisfaction of solving a non-routine problem. Here’s an example: 13 x 7 = 28

(1) The problem should be in the learner’s “zone of proximal development” which refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.

Thus, the term “proximal” refers to those skills that the learner is “close” to mastering. (Source)

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