Supporting Student Productive Struggle

Matthew JosephBlog, Innovate Better, Lead Better, Lesson Plan Better

In This Post:

  • The definition of student productive struggle.
  • Why productive struggle is important for students.
  • Ways to promote productive struggle in your classroom, from planning to implementation.

This week some of our school leaders and intervention professionals held a fall data meeting. One of the discussions, besides progress or increased needs, focused on the productive struggle of learners. Productive struggle? The idea of that intrigued me, and I wanted to dive into that thought.

The first thought I had is that we often ask teachers not to do the “heavy lifting.” I often say, “Students don’t come to school to watch teachers work.”

So how do we shift the trend and have students “working” more?

A culture where mistakes are expected, respected, and then corrected, is a culture where students will try more and then learn more. Click To Tweet

Consider your own productive struggle.

I know how I feel when I attempt to learn something new. I also remember how I felt when I picked up a golf club for the first time.

How about you when you tried something new? Did you “get it” the first time? Or did it take multiple attempts, perseverance, and failure to reach your goal or learn the skill? How did you feel when you reached your goal?

Now consider your students.

Now, think about your classroom or your school. How much of your instructional time is spent with you in control of the lesson? How much of the learning block do the students work?             

Carol Dweck says… “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their confidence.

I think this quote also is vital in education. I believe that if you are providing a safe and challenging learning environment, students will have opportunities for productive struggle. Implementing tasks that promote reasoning and problem solving is a great place to start. These tasks will encourage meaningful discourse and allow you to pose purposeful questions.

But what is productive struggle?

Before we go further, it is crucial to define “productive struggle.” This is not a term I coined, so I went to the google machine and looked for some good explanations – these two resonated with me.

Productive struggle is, “Effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching—that builds useful, lasting understanding and skill.” (Heibert & Grouws)

Another definition is, “When 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.” (Jackson & Lambert)

Giving opportunities for productive struggle is part of learning and encourages creativity. More independent opportunities will build authentic student engagement and perseverance.

This time of student “work” will give teachers opportunities for informal assessment, intervention, and feedback. Additionally, productive struggle immerses your students in authentic engagement.

Without struggle or feedback, there cannot be progress or growth. In today’s “everyone wins” culture, we have moved away from the productive struggle. We should acknowledge students more for their perseverance and effort. Then provide students with specific feedback on their progress.

Giving advice and praise is NOT feedback. A principle to action report from 2014 says, “To support students; we must consider what they know and then support them to figure out what they need to know.” And I agree….not that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics was asking.

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Planning for student productive struggle.

Now we know what it means, how can we make the instructional and mindset shift?

This process of increasing productive struggle starts with us. We must teach students how to support themselves and then others in their productive struggle. Creating a classroom climate where it is okay to make mistakes and that encourages students taking risks is a start. A culture where mistakes are expected, respected, and then corrected, is a culture where students will try more and then learn more.

 It starts in the planning stage.                                                     

  • Develop Learning Goals that detail what students will take away from the lesson.
  • Identify the Evidence that students can provide or products that will give you information about their understanding.
  • Launch the lesson by activating Prior Knowledge and wisdom so students can draw on in their experiences during the learning task.
  • Move into the Essential Questions that you want students to be able to answer throughout the lesson.
  • Then turn it over to the students to complete the lesson Main Activity.

Implementing student productive struggle. gives some examples of teacher moves to implement to foster productive struggle.

  • Call on students who may not have the correct answer.
  • Praise students for persevering through a problem.
  • Allow time for students to tinker with ideas. Go Slow to Go Fast.
  • Provide non-routine problems that can’t be solved with formulas.
  • Encourage Growth Mindset.

The site also gives examples of teacher moves to avoid when encouraging a classroom that supports productive struggle

  • Calling on students who know the right answer.
  • Praising students for being smart.
  • Making student responses right or wrong.
  • Giving easier work to struggling students.
  • Following a strict schedule for covering new material. also did not ask my opinion, nor did JiJi (the ST Math penguin) ask if I agree – but I felt strongly about what to implement and avoid, so I added the strategies into this blog for others.

Getting comfortable with productive struggle.

Providing opportunities for students to struggle and learn will lead to learning perseverance. Often people, when faced with a challenge, experience discomfort. However, with practice, they become more comfortable with enduring the discomfort and working through it. This perseverance will lead to the satisfaction of overcoming a challenging problem, or question, or task. I think this will be the same for our students.

Instead of over-scaffolding or giving prompts, I recommend planning for the struggle.

You can:

  • Anticipate what students might struggle with during a lesson and prepare.
  • Give students time to struggle with tasks and ask questions.
  • Build a culture where confusion and mistakes are part of learning.
  • Praise students for their efforts.
  • Help students realize this struggle will take time.
  • Provide strategies for what they can do when they are stuck.

In closing, productive struggle promotes retention and constant learning, and moves away from “cramming for a quiz” or “memorizing.” It gives students the tools to solve a problem and lessens their dependency on “asking for answers.” I always say our job as educators is to teach kids how to think – NOT what to think.


Jackson, R., & Lambert, C. How to Support Struggling Students

Heibert, J. & Grouws, D. (2007) The Effects of Classroom Mathematics Teaching on Students’ Learning

About Matthew X. Joseph, Ed.D.

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph has been a school and district leader in many capacities in public education over his 25 years in the field. Experiences such as the Director of Digital Learning and Innovation in Milford Public Schools (MA), elementary school principal in Natick, MA and Attleboro, MA, classroom teacher, and district professional development specialist have provided Matt incredible insights on how to best support teaching and learning. This experience has led to nationally publishing articles and opportunities to speak at multiple state and national events. He is the author of Power of Us: Creating Collaborative Schools and co-author of Modern Mentoring, Reimagining Teacher Mentorship (Due out, fall 2019). His master’s degree is in special education and his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Boston College.

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