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February 21, 2023

Engaging Learners Through Productive Struggle

In general, I think it’s fair to say people avoid struggle. Yet, struggle is a part of life! We struggle to improve, to learn a new skill, and with difficult interactions—so many struggles. But what we may not acknowledge is that struggle is a good thing…a really good thing.

In, “Why Struggle is Essential for Our Brain and Our Lives,” brain and mathematics expert Jo Boaler shares that “neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity, and if we are not struggling, we are not learning.” Boaler goes on to discuss more about the benefits of struggle, in this article excerpt:

An international study of mathematics teaching found that teachers in Japan put their students in places of struggle 44 percent of the time in classrooms—they saw this less than 1 percent of the time in U.S. classrooms. What do we parents and teachers do instead? We jump in and show the way, offering steps to a solution to help save our students from struggle. This is in large part because this new science is not widely available and we are culturally trained to feel bad, and to rush in and help, when this is probably the last thing we should do.

Enter productive struggle, the idea that we allow students to grapple with unfamiliar information before offering assistance. Struggle ignites our brain and allows us to learn from the inevitable processes and mistakes we make when learning something new.

For productive struggle to be successful, it’s critical to introduce it in a classroom practicing foundational conditions that amplify trust, clear expectations, feedback, safety, and collaboration. Our new course, 5244: Engaging Learners through Productive Struggle encourages us to do just that.

Ready to start engaging your learners through productive struggle? This list of resources from course 5244 provides specific strategies to design rigorous tasks for students to grapple with in their learning.


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