Setting the Stage for Productive Struggle

A growing interest in teaching with productive struggle is a hopeful sign in the math classroom. Productive struggle can lead to deeper understandings, connections, and motivation in students. So, why are some teachers still hesitant to use it?

Recently, I was able to present a lesson over the Law of Sines and Cosines in a local high school. Normally, these students learn in the traditional way of lecture. However, we challenged ourselves to create a lesson that caused students to struggle a little before they came to the solution. When we presented it, many of the students seemed disinterested and unengaged. I was worried about this when creating the lesson, but I did not think it would occur to the extent that it did. So, I have looked into articles that provide ways for a teacher to slowly introduce and transition students into lessons that incorporate productive struggle.

The article, Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle, gives tips on what to do and what to avoid when teaching with struggle. Years of research has proven that student learning is enhanced when they have to be persistent to reach success–this concept goes all the way back to the educational reformer, John Dewey who “described learning as beginning with a dilemma.” One major key to a successful productive struggle lesson is to have the goal of the lesson be focus on getting students to have a deeper understanding of the material instead of just focusing on creating struggle. One common way to do this is through real world applications. For example, in the lesson we created for the geometry class, there was an activity that involved drones and using them to deliver pizza. Although this is not necessarily happening today, it is something that could take place in the near future. When this activity was introduced towards the end, there seemed to be a switch that flipped. Almost all of the students were working together to figure out the problem. And, they were able to recall previous math knowledge to help them solve the Law of Sines problem. This is another helpful tip when causing productive struggle–having students use math that they are familiar with can help produce productive struggle instead of frustration. Having the knowledge needed for part of the problem gives students a boost of confidence. However, students also need the time to realize these connections. As a teacher, you should be sure to give your students enough time to think about the activity before giving them any hints or guidance. This time is crucial for allowing students to make connections and deepen their understanding of the math at hand.

The article provides the following list of key elements for providing productive struggle:

  • Determine timing and placement for productive struggle within the unit or curriculum—lessons that are “preparing students to hear something really important.”
  • Align struggle activities with clear, specific learning goals.
  • Design struggle tasks based on assessment of students’ prior knowledge and skills.
  • Foster a safe environment that encourages student inquiry and exploration of important ideas.
  • Use probing questions to solicit student thinking and provide strategic assistance to nudge students through their zone of proximal development–the zone of students’ thinking just beyond the level they can do completely on their own.
  • Follow-up each struggle episode with carefully structured lessons that build on students’ ideas, address misconceptions, and help students forge new understandings.
  • Assist students to reflect and articulate what they learned as a result of productive persistence.

In the future, these tips will definitely help to transition into a classroom with productive struggle much better than the geometry class I just experienced. For instance, I think that the students would have gotten much more out of our discovery activity for the Law of Sines and Cosines if we gave them more thinking time and created an environment that allowed students to talk about their ideas without fear of being wrong.

Image result for productive struggle in the classroom

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