Why Teachers Should Experience Productive Struggle

I’m sitting in front of the computer blinking, ready to press the “submit” button; knowing that if I missed this problem, the progress bar will drop down another 25% and I’ll spend half an hour trying to get back up to where I was. At this point, I have spent well over ninety minutes on a lesson that’s meant to last twenty to forty-five minutes.

I take a deep breath and press submit. A red bar appears warning me that it’s “not quite right,” and so I step away. Every part of me wants to quit this lesson and move on. But I know I’m so close to solving it. Most of the errors have been computational and not conceptual.

I review the formula

It looks like the formula from Goodwill Hunting and instead of being the janitor solving the problem effortlessly, I’m the baffled professor saying, “I’m pretty sure it will make sense soon.”

I wring my hands in frustration, questioning why this is so hard for me. I’ve taught STEM and STEAM. I read statistics often. However,  I’m learning that there’s a huge difference between constructing and analyzing stats. In this moment, the subject is absolutely grueling. So, I step away from the computer and the Knewton Alta statistics program and spend the next twenty minutes drawing pictures with my daughter and son:

I never think twice about the drawing. I don’t hesitate or doubt myself. It’s just a doodle of the greyhound we adopted a few months ago. It’s my creative release; a grown-up version of a brain break. It doesn’t matter that the legs are all wrong or that the snout isn’t technically correct. It’s a doodle. It’s supposed to be imperfect.

And yet, when I have asked my students to do sketchnotes, at least half of them have reacted with the same type of fear and anxiety I have been experiencing with my statistics homework.

Here’s what happened. A little over a year ago, I asked my students to do a sketchnote with no words. I assumed they would enjoy the creative constraint and the opportunity to convey their thinking in a visual format. I was wrong. Many of them worried about whether or not it looked artistic enough. Even when I  said, “it’s a doodle and it doesn’t have to be pretty,” they still seemed anxious. Several of them left the room to get a drink of water. A few of them chatted and avoided the assignment. Others asked to see examples online or they looked at what everyone else was doing to see how their pictures compared. Still, others rushed to finish it as fast as possible.

On the surface, I saw work avoidance and a minimal effort from all but three of my students. When I asked what was going on, they described the fear and anxiety they experienced. A few of them who tried and struggled explained the frustration of making an attempt and still not getting it right. We  then debriefed this activity in light of so-called “reluctant learners.” What if the real issue wasn’t laziness? What if it was fear?  For a few students, it was a big “aha” moment, where they realized that when students are off-topic or even defiant, it is often connected to fear and low self-efficacy in their learning. When that student seems to avoid doing the reading or math work, chances are, it’s about fear as much as a lack of motivation.

So, back to my stats homework. When I’m done drawing, I go back to the computer and I try again. It takes me over an hour to complete the lesson. But when it’s done, I’m proud of the accomplishment. I get it now. On a deep level I get it. And every time this happens, I become a better teacher. When I experience productive struggle, it makes me more empathetic toward my students.

 

What do we mean by struggling?

When I think about my work on the statistics homework, I find it easy to persevere and finish because I am motivated by task. I genuinely want to figure out how to construct and analyze statistical data. But also, I am convinced that I will persevere. In other words, my motivation and self-efficacy remain high despite my currently lower skill level.

In general, when we see learners struggling, it fits within the following three categories:

  • Self-Efficacy: the belief that you can and will succeed in your learning
  • Motivation: the internal drive or desire to learn something
  • Skill Level: where you are in skill development (or in your conceptual understanding)

However, it’s not that simple. There are often layers of contextual issues that can shape self-efficacy, motivation, and skill level. For example, the pace and deadlines can impact my motivation and my self-efficacy. If it feels rushed, I might say, “I know I can do this and my skills are there but I’m not sure how I’m going to do it this quickly.” If a task is high-stakes, I might have a high skill level and a high sense of self-efficacy but I might also feel more anxious and nervous, which will, in turn, affect my motivation.

 

What happens when teachers experience productive struggle?

I’ve known teachers who have learned a new instrument or a new language. Others have taken on new projects that seemed impossible at the time. Or they’ve trained for marathons that pushed them to go to the edge of what seems physically possible. Even though these seem unrelated to classroom, they can have a profound impact on our approach to teaching. The following are a few things that happen when teachers struggle with their own learning outside of teaching.

#1: It’s a chance to gain empathy

I remember a moment when a group of students burst into tears because they couldn’t get their solar oven to work. They had each researched possible concepts and tried out various approaches as a group after school. The next morning, they met up to talk about their design. And yet, when they finally attempted it, the project simply didn’t work. It’s easy to say, “it’s just some cardboard and aluminum foil,” but I instantly recognized how they felt. It was the same frustration I had felt when writing a book that wasn’t working or trying to string together a line of code that didn’t work.

When we experience creative struggle, we experience a whole range of emotions and thought processes that mirror what our students experience when they struggle. As a result, we can grow more empathetic toward them and even provide strategies to help students navigate these emotions.

I love this chart from some of the leading researchers around Flow Theory:

Notice that my students experienced anxiety and worry when I asked them to sketchnote and that I experienced a similar set of emotions when I was doing my statistics homework. However, as I think about the layers of skill level, motivation, and self-efficacy, I find that I experience the following:

  • Low Skill, High Motivation, and Low Self-Efficacy = Anxiety, because I want to accomplish the task but I’m not sure I can
  • Low Skill, High Motivation, and High Self-Efficacy = Determined, because even though my skill level is currently low, I am sure I will accomplish it
  • Low Skill, Low Motivation, and High Self-Efficacy = Boredom, because even though I know I can accomplish the task eventually, I have no real desire to do it
  • Low Skill, Low Motivation, and Low Self-Efficacy = Resentment, because I feel stuck doing a task I don’t want to do, that I’m currently unable to do, and that I’m skeptical I will ever figure out
  • High Skill, High Motivation, and Low Self-Efficacy = Imposter Syndrome, because even though I am motivated and I currently have the skills, I am struggling with self-doubt
  • High Skill, High Motivation, and High Self-Efficacy = Flow, where I get lost in what I am doing and I love the challenge and experience
  • High Skill, Low Motivation, and High Self-Efficacy = Restlessness, where I am able to accomplish the task but I can’t wait to move on to something new
  • High Skill, Low Motivation, and Low Self-Efficacy = Avoidance, because even though I have the skills, it’s something I really want to do and I’m not positive I can accomplish it

Here it is as a chart:

I realize that every person is different and that my students might experience a whole range of emotions when they have varying skill, motivation, and self-efficacy levels. However, when I experience the boredom, resentment, avoidance, and anxiety of struggling with a task, I am able to feel what many of my pre-service teachers are experiencing as they struggle.

#2: You experience the connection between failing and learning

Learning is an iterative process full of mistakes. However, we often experience smaller mistakes that lead to revisions. You write something and then revise it ever so slightly before publishing it. You teach a lesson in first hour and then make minor tweaks to it throughout the day until it’s awesome in fifth hour. However, when you truly struggle, you have moments when you fail bigtime and then have to find an entirely different approach.

Notice that there’s a difference between fail-ure and fail-ing. Failure is permanent while failing is a part of the learning process. We don’t want students to embrace failure. If you embrace failure, you’re the Cleveland Browns. But you do want to see students recognize how failing is a part of the learning process.

As you struggle, you can find ways to create systems where students have the permission to struggle. It might involve a move away from traditional grading and toward mastery-based grading, where students can resubmit and improve on their work. Or you might take away the requirements on the amount of work (i.e. five paragraphs for an essay) and instead letting some students work slower and struggle without worrying about falling behind. But it might also mean providing more scaffolding. Which leads to the next point . . .

#3: You see the need for differentiation

As the expert on a subject, it’s easy to miss just how much cognitive load goes into learning a new skill. I have hit moments in this statistics homework where I struggled with interference between closely related topics. I had times when the sheer amount of information felt overwhelming. Even when the learning felt seamless, I have left each lesson feeling exhausted.

I mention this because I rarely hit cognitive overload when I write a blog post, make a sketch video, or work on a book. I tend to geek out on ideas when reading or listening to podcasts and I typically feel excited rather than exhausted. However, my statistics homework requires extra cognitive work. As a result, I have been watching and rewatching the Crash Course videos. At times, I’ve created my own flow charts and notes connecting the concepts. I’ve created formulas on Excel so that I can double-check my work to see if my computations on paper match the ones on the spreadsheet. In other words, I have structures and scaffolds that are reducing the cognitive load and helping me to access the content.

When you, as the teacher, struggle with your own learning, you see the value in having structures and scaffolds. It’s easy to think of differentiating as an afterthought. However, when you’ve experienced it firsthand, you see the need for reducing cognitive load by designing scaffolds, breaking down tasks, and allowing students to work at a slower pace if need be. You start thinking about ways that you can pull small groups and structure intervention within the lessons.

#4: You create a community of positive risk-taking

Although I love the theory of grit, I think it’s important to realize that context and community play a critical role in developing perseverance. As a classroom teacher in a low-SES school, I had a hard time hearing the message that my students simply needed to struggle more, try harder, and not give up. It’s easy to think about grit but miss the role of injustice and racism that keeps students from persevering. I’m lucky because I’ve always had a safety net. Taking risks, making mistakes, and persevering have been relatively easy for me, because I’ve always had a close community of support all around me. This was one of the key take-aways on the recent re-examination of the famous marshmallow test. It turns out the test had more to do with affluence than perseverance and patience.

But I also think context and community play a vital role for students to develop endurance in the classroom. You are the leader of your classroom. So, when you take creative risks with your students, you are saying to your students, “this is what we do. We take creative risks.” But you’re not simply telling them to take creative risks. You are leading the way by taking risks yourself. We tend to think that teachers need to look self-assured and confident. However, we can also say things like, “I’m experimenting with this project” or “I’m trying something out and I’m afraid it’s not going to work.” In these moments, we are not only modeling creative risk-taking; we are modeling vulnerability and trust, which, in turn, transform the classroom culture.

This is also why it helps to learn something you know nothing about (like playing an instrument or learning to code or writing a novel) and sharing your journey with your students. This normalizes creative risk-taking for the entire classroom community. One of the hardest parts of creative risk-taking is the uncertainty and loneliness of it. But when you share your journey, you are giving them a blueprint for how to handle failure while also helping them see that they are not alone in the process.

#5: You develop a growth mindset

Don’t get me wrong. Failing isn’t fun. Mistakes suck. It’s hard to work on something that simply isn’t working in the moment. However, when students expect mistakes and view it as part of the learning process, they are more likely to embrace a growth mindset:

Teachers Do This All The Time

When I observe classrooms where students are becoming problem-solvers and creative thinkers, there is always a common element with the teachers. They take risks. They experiment. They know that creative risk-taking is exactly that: a risk. It might work. It might fail. But they also know that the greatest risk occurs when they teach out of fear and fail to innovate in their own practice. This is the value in productive struggling. When you experience productive struggle, both in your teaching and in your life, you grow more empathetic toward your students and you can transform it into a place where students feel safe struggling and, ultimately, where they persevere and succeed.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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3 responses

  1. Hi John, Many thanks for this post! It is timely as I am about to finish my final 4th-year theory assignment before internship as part of my BEd (Primary) degree, Productive struggle has been a large part of my learning over the past few years as a full-time/part-time online student and I can fully identify with how valuable this form of reflexive thinking is for entering a world of creative little minds in a classroom setting. Your blog posts have helped set me on the right path over the past 2 years since I first stumbled upon your writing. Thank you for all the time and creative energy you share! It is very much appreciated.

  2. […] Why Teachers Should Experience Productive Struggle […]

  3. […] productive struggles and connected it to feeling empathy for what our learners go through: Why Teachers Should Experience Productive Struggle. If time allows, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read (or listen to, this is also a […]

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