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December 13, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 11

Productive Struggle Is a Learner's Sweet Spot

Instructional Strategies
Rigor is a buzzword in today's educational circles, but there are many misunderstandings about the concept. Although rigor means having high expectations for all students, those expectations must be accompanied by appropriate support. Student success occurs when you create an instructional environment that sets high expectations for each student and provides scaffolding without offering excessive help. The key is to incorporate productive struggle.
Productive struggle is what I call the "sweet spot" in between scaffolding and support. Rather than immediately helping students at the first sign of trouble, we should allow them to work through struggles independently before we offer assistance. That may sound counterintuitive, since many of us assume that helping students learn means protecting them from negative feelings of frustration. But for students to become independent learners, they must learn to persist in the face of challenge.
This does not mean you teach a standard lesson and allow students to struggle throughout. I recommend providing specific opportunities for productive struggle as students build their skills. For a struggle to qualify as productive, it should:
  • Challenge the specific weaknesses of the student or small group rather than overwhelm them.
  • Occur within challenging activities and assignments.
  • Be productive rather than frustrating. For example, if you want to learn to play tennis, you will struggle appropriately playing a slightly superior coach who challenges you rather than playing someone completely out of your league.
  • Let students use metacognitive reflections to process their thinking. With metacognitive reflections, students think about how they learn in addition to what they learn.
Productive struggle means more than simply giving a student "hard work" and leaving them alone to struggle. It is a learning opportunity that requires a teacher to create, facilitate, and monitor the process, especially as students are learning how to struggle productively. Let's look at practical ways you can incorporate productive struggle in your classroom.

Productive Struggle in Action

Assume that you have a small number of students who cannot read part of your lesson's challenging text. Based on your observations, as well as the students' previous work, you are aware that they struggle with vocabulary and background knowledge. A standard way to respond is to teach the students separately from the whole class, with a focus on teacher-directed information at a lower level. This does not allow students to struggle productively, however, nor does it provide an opportunity for them to work at challenging levels.
One opportunity for productive struggle is to "layer meaning"—an alternative reading strategy that allows students to work at challenging levels in positive ways.
Step One
Use an interactive approach that shifts ownership to the students. First, have students read and process an easier text on the same topic using what I call "A Bump in the Road" metacognitive guide to determine their needed level of assistance. Using this approach, students will identify two to four points in the text where they hit bumps in the road. Then, they will partner with another student to see if they can work their way through their struggle.
If students are unable to overcome their struggles alone or with a partner, then you step in. Although you can provide some guidance, you should not direct instruction in a strict manner or "rescue" students at the first sign of trouble. With my students, I am intentional about using facilitating questions for guidance, such as "Is there something in the previous paragraph that can help you understand this better?" or "We worked through similar problems yesterday. Think about what you did then and see if it will help you solve today's problem." You should only provide teacher assistance when the struggle becomes unproductive.
When engaging in productive struggle, students may make multiple attempts, take more time than usual, ask for help from other students or the teacher, or seek out other resources. When you notice a student is completely overwhelmed and frustrated—when they can't answer a question even after multiple attempts and guidance—you may need to adjust your instruction.
The less challenging text allows students to build their vocabulary skills and background knowledge so that they can become more successful with the challenging text. While they may still struggle, the information from the first text provides additional scaffolding.
Step Two
Students may still need support to understand the challenging text. If you have used it before with your students, you can once again use "A Bump in the Road" or employ another metacognitive guide to help. In the first open-ended and student-directed guide pictured below, students work with an assigned text. Based on the teacher-assigned topic or key point, students write down thoughts and predictions about the text either alone or with a partner. Next, they read the text, looking for the author's points to match any of their ideas. Then, they write the page number or their evidence to support how the author's points match or differ from theirs.

Metacognitive Guide for Moving to More Challenging Text

Productive Struggle Is a Learner's Sweet Spot-table1

Topic or Chapter/Text

My Thought or PredictionAuthor's PointEvidence or Page Number

The next guide below provides various statements about the text to give struggling students more structure. Students check whether they agree or disagree with the statement and then read the text to locate the information. You can also facilitate a small group or whole group discussion to compare students' original opinions with the text's information.

Metacognitive Guide with Additional Structure for Moving to More Challenging Text

Productive Struggle Is a Learner's Sweet Spot-table2

Topic, Chapter, Page Numbers, or Article

Teacher Provided StatementI AgreeI DisagreeText InformationPage or Paragraph Number

The "layering meaning" strategy uses metacognitive guides and delayed teacher support to cement a process that allows for challenging work and productive scaffolding that builds student independence and grit. It also provides structure so that students learn how to struggle appropriately and productively, which serves as a building block for future learning struggles. I've seen students who were passive learners move beyond those behaviors to engage in and learn from productive struggles.

Barbara Blackburn is a top 30 Global Guru in Education, the author of multiple books on rigor, and an international speaker. She regularly provides schools and districts with professional development.

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