How Can a Struggle be Productive?

The productive struggle is something that so many teachers fail┬áto accomplish, but is so necessary for grasping and obtaining a deep understanding of tricky math concepts. When students work so hard on a math problem, even if it takes an hour, finally finding that answer creates so much pride and triumph. As a math major, this is a topic that resonates with me. While tutoring in the math department, I have seen college students light up when they discover their hard work paid off and they did a problem correctly. What I’m wanting to see is that same excitement in K-12 classrooms.

I think there are a few reasons why teachers are failing to let their students struggle to find their own meaning. First of all, it’s hard for us to see kids struggle! We want to help kids learn, which is why we desire to be in this profession in the first place. It is not easy to step back and let students try different things. Working at a daycare, I have watched a three year old spin a puzzle piece every possible way and try to fit it into a spot for 5 full minutes. Do you think I took that piece from him and showed him how it went? Of course not! Because as teachers we need to have patience and know when to let go and let kids learn. But this is tricky when teachers want to control every aspect of what’s happening in the classroom. Now, I’m not saying teachers should sit there and let the students teach themselves math. Of course they need guidance and scaffolding to be able to work on problems by themselves. It’s just that sometimes teachers can’t find the balance between not providing them with enough guidance, and flat out giving the answer/how to do it.

The second reason why teachers may not be succeeding at the productive struggle is that they have not created a culture in their classroom that makes kids feel comfortable failing. Math is one of those subjects where when kids make a mistake, they can become so embarrassed and traumatized that they don’t want to try again. This is so sad to me because there is so much to be learned through making mistakes. I could include so many cheesy quotes here about how we learn from failures more than successes, but I’ll spare you. Just believe me when I say that we need to do a better job of creating classroom environments that encourage kids to try and try different things and to not be ashamed of their mistakes.

I encourage my fellow future teachers to think about how they can help students develop the problem solving skills that are so necessary for not only mathematics, but life, through this weird concept known as the productive struggle.