Productive struggle is not readily measureable, and it will never appear on a state report card. But its importance is easily understood within the context of our division’s focus of equity, relevance, and innovation. We promote the idea of matching resources with student and community needs as our working definition of equity. When introduced to new learning and unfamiliar learning environments, students react differently because their perceptions of how they will succeed may be very different, their skills are at various stages of development, and their supports outside of our schools may be uneven. We cannot apply the same strategies and types of support and expect the same measured outcomes for each of our students. Not every beginning swimmer needs the arm floaties for security, and not every five-year old uses training wheels for the same amount of time. In order to keep our learners engaged in the learning with us, we must make sure that the struggle remains productive and encouraging. While a student may be struggling with simplifying fractions or analyzing primary sources or developing a better embouchure, the more relevant lesson is how to accept failure as a part of success. This is the lesson that will propel our students to achieve in an innovative society.
Sometimes productive struggle is the result of serendipity, an alignment of the stars. The challenge for educators is to create that magical “sweet spot” of instruction deliberately. We obviously need to rely on a deep toolbox of instructional strategies, which can only be enhanced when we choose to work together in grade level teams or departments or PLCs. We need to know when to use a hammer and when a good wrench is necessary. And we, teachers and our students, need to develop a strong feedback loop. In order to move students from a challenge that results in crippling frustration to productive struggle, we need to look for opportunities to gauge a student’s mastery at the granular level and communicate (and celebrate) the incremental success back to the student. And we need to reflect upon the impact of our grading practices on a student’s willingness to struggle.
More than anything, though, relationships are at the heart of productive struggle. For every example I gave above - my time as a student, a teacher, a parent, and an administrator - relationships created the environment in which a student engaged in productive struggle with her teacher. Students thrive in rigorous classrooms when they know that their teachers are poised to empower them to push through the challenging tasks with high-fives and scaffolded supports. We are those teachers.