2-Minute Strategies 2-MIN. READ

Why Productive Struggle Matters

By: Andrea Baney 05/28/2024
Discover how productive struggle can help your students grow into strong thinkers.
Students test a battery-powered lighting circuit.

Our students want the answer to everything immediately. And honestly, who can blame them? Thanks to technology, the world is quite literally at their fingertips. They know how to access more things online than most adults can, and they are quick at doing it.

While knowing how to find the answers quickly is beneficial in many ways, it also has negative effects. Primarily, students forget how to think for themselves. They are unable to power through challenges. This is why I like to let my students struggle.

Try before Telling

One of my favorite ways to begin a new lesson is to let my students try the task without any instruction or explanation. For example, in a recent science lesson, I planned to teach them about circuits. Instead of starting with the reading in the book, I gave groups of two to three students a wire, a lightbulb, and a battery. I simply told them that their job was to light the lightbulb, and that was it. I heard many comments like, “This will be so easy!”

This is where the struggle began. Students quickly realized that getting the lightbulb to light up was more difficult than they had realized. As I observed students working on this challenge, I noticed that many only used one end of the battery to connect the wire and the lightbulb. Others were too busy arguing over which idea was better, and this prevented them from getting started on building the mini-circuit. Throughout all of this, I made sure never to intervene.

Collaboration Inspires Creativity

I always do these tasks with partners or small groups for a reason. While disagreements are likely to occur, they also spark creative ideas and “aha” moments. They force conversations. They require teamwork. Over those moments, I began to watch the struggle turn into a productive struggle. 

The following day we gathered information about the topic. We studied and discussed how to become experts in circuits. Several days later, I ended the lesson by going back to that day of struggle. I gave my students the same materials and they found they could easily achieve the same task they once struggled with. 

However, this time, I gave them even more supplies: multiple wires, batteries, and lightbulbs. My students were not only able to build a basic circuit, but they were able to build circuits that allowed the lightbulbs to shine brightly. They even went beyond the materials they were given and added other items they knew would act as conductors. For example, students used paper clips, a metal portion of their desks, and even the metal bracket on the top of a pencil. They not only discovered and built incredible circuits, but they also gained confidence, knowledge, and team-building skills . . . all thanks to that one day of struggle.

Productive Struggle Prepares Students for Deeper Learning

You can encourage productive struggle in any content area. Here’s an example of a productive struggle strategy for a math class. During a lesson, I will sometimes give my students a new equation or problem to solve without any instruction. They attempt it independently on their whiteboards. After a few minutes of struggle, I have my students turn and talk to their partners about what they were working on. My students can frequently spark new ideas by working together. They help one another complete the task or, at the very least, get some ideas of how to attempt the new equation. We then discuss this as a class and develop ideas together as a team. This is often way more valuable than if I would stand up there and lecture about a new mathematical concept.

As educators, our job is not just to teach content—we need to prepare our students for the future. With AI technology, robots, and the latest technology always improving, students need to be able to set themselves apart from the rest. Productive struggle will teach these future leaders how to work as a team, how to overcome obstacles, and how to think when the answer isn’t readily available. If we, as educators, can provide them with those assets, our world will truly be a better place. What will your students struggle with today?

Want to hear more about productive struggle? Tune into the Extraordinary Educators™  Podcast.