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Sunday / May 27

Facilitating Productive Struggle in the Mathematics Classroom

Elaine doesn’t like it when her students struggle. She wants to run over to them, pick up the pencil, and show them the way. Yet she knows this is not best for them because when students productively struggle to make sense of the mathematics, they are learning, they are actively engaged (NCTM, 2014), they apply their learning to new situations, and they engage in higher level thinking (Kapur, 2010).

Elaine has noticed that in the midst of her students’ productive struggle, she must face her own conflicting needs. Allowing students to productively struggle requires thoughtful planning prior to the lesson and dogged determination (on the part of the teacher) to attend to students’ learning and social emotional needs during the lesson.

Like Elaine, you may find that facilitating productive struggle is great in theory, but challenging in practice. With a few simple moves, you can be on your way to developing that productive struggle “sweet spot” for you and your students!

Choose Tasks Wisely

Sounds like common sense, right?  Tasks that are too easy give students the impression that all tasks should be completed with little effort and no sweat. Take a look at a week’s worth of tasks and rate the cognitive level of the tasks as low, medium, or high. For example, do students know immediately how to do the task? If so, then rate that task as low-level. Does the task have multiple solution pathways and require mathematical reasoning and sense making? If so, then rate the task as high-level. If you find that most of your tasks are low-level, then you may be giving students the unintended impression that math should be easy. On the other hand, tasks that are too challenging can throw students into an unproductive spiral. Good tasks have multiple entry points for students and encourage varied approaches.

Plan for Productive Struggle

You plan for everything else, right? Productive struggle needs planning attention, too!

By reflecting on how you respond to student confusion and struggle, you can plan strategic moves to use in the classroom that will support all your students. As you plan, make sure you provide plenty of time for students to struggle with tasks and move through the struggle so they know what it feels like on the other side of the struggle. If students don’t have the opportunity to experience success after they have struggled through a task, they will be less likely to engage the next time. Careful planning (and teacher determination) can truly empower students to develop an understanding of the power of perseverance (Kobett, Harbin Miles, & Williams, 2018).

After you have made sure that you have provided plenty of time for students to complete the task, make sure you plan for how you will respond when students are struggling. For many teachers, this is a critical moment in the lesson. If you are like me, nothing makes me cave faster than a looking out onto a sea of student confusion in my classroom. First anticipate how, when, and why students might be confused and then plan for how you will respond. For example, some students falter when they first approach a task (Kobett, et al, 2018). Planning for students to talk with one another about what the task means can be an effective and soft entry into the task. Other teachers use launch protocols such as Notice and Wonder (Math Forum, 2015) and See, Think, and Wonder (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011) to gently usher students into a task, which, in turn, bolsters their understanding and confidence to solve challenging problems. Finally, plan for opportunities for students to ask their own questions, help each other, and share how they moved through a struggle during the task.

Unpack Productive Struggle

Be explicit about what struggle looks like and feels like so students understand that it will help them (Kobett et al, 2018). Just as you explicitly share mathematical standards and student learning intentions, take some time to share your productive struggle goals. Discuss perseverance with students, and actively recognize when students demonstrate it. As students are working, you can let them know that you are noticing that they are persevering through a task by drawing attention to how they are working. Focus on the hard work, not on right answers to ensure that students understand what you value. Some teachers document these moments of perseverance with personal notes or through public “perseverance posters” hung around the room. I use a die cut letter “P” to hand out to students as they are working to note that I am noticing how they are persevering. Also, ask students to share with each other how they persevere. Don’t forget to make sure you provide time to celebrate and use confusion and mistakes (yours and theirs) as an opportunity for furthering and deepening understanding (Kobett et al, 2018). Many students view mistakes negatively. By highlighting common mistakes and misconceptions, you demonstrate how much you value the learning process, not just correct solutions.

Before long, you and your students can enjoy the benefit of careful planning and orchestration of productive struggle!


McCord Kobett, B., Harbin-Miles, R., Williams, L. (2018) The Mathematics Lesson-Planning Handbook, Grades K-2. Thousand Oaks: Corwin

Kapur, M. (2010). Productive failure in mathematical problem solving. Instructional Science, 38(6), 523–550.

Math Forum. (2015). Beginning to problem solve with “I notice, I wonder”. Retrieved from http://mathforum.org/pow/noticewonder/intro.pdf.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). (2014). Principles to actions: Ensuring mathematical success for all. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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Written by

Beth McCord Kobett, EdD, is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Stevenson University where she works with preservice teachers and leads professional learning efforts in mathematics education both regionally and nationally. She is also the lead consultant for the Elementary Mathematics Specialists and Teacher Leaders Project. She is a former classroom teacher, elementary mathematics specialist, adjunct professor, and university supervisor. She is the current president of the Association of Maryland Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMMTE) and chair of the Professional Development Services Committee of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

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