Sunday / March 3

How Do We Find the Right Level of Challenge for Our Learners?

This blog is Part 4 of the 4-part series on Promising Principles to Enhance Learning.

Part 1: Seven Promising Principles to Enhance Learning in Your School or Classroom

Part 2: Four Ingredients that Motivate our Learners to Engage

Part 3: Ways to Enhance Remembering: The Role of Retrieval Practice in Learning

In 1837, Robert Southey published the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This British fairytale has quite an interesting history, primarily because there are three very different versions of the story. Originally, Goldilocks was an intrusive old woman that entered the home of three bears – all three of the bears were bachelors. Southey portrays the old woman as impudent, foul-mouthed, unclean, and needing a stay at the House of Correction. Yes, to correct these not-so-good behaviors.

In this initial version of the story, Goldilocks tries out the bears chairs, breaks one of them, eats their soup, falls asleep in one of their beds, is startled awake by the returning bears, jumps out of the window, and is never heard from again.  Not quite as you recall from your childhood readings, huh? The second, and edited version of the story transformed Goldilocks from an old woman in need of correction to a young girl. The sequencing of events remained largely the same. Then, the final and third version of this fairytale turns the editorial revisions towards the three bears. What we are most familiar with in the United States is the portrayal of a family of bears and not three bachelors; a papa bear, mama bear, and baby bear.

So, what does this have to do with productive struggle? Well, the history of Southey’s fairytale required adjusting over time before the story of a young girl and a family of bears became the well-known story we all know and love today. The first version of the story was too vulgar (impudent, foul-mouthed, and unclean old woman), the second version of the story was too inappropriate (three bachelors and a young girl), but the final version was just right (as evidenced by this version’s popularity across the globe). The history of Goldilocks and the Three Bears mirrors the internal story line of chairs, soup, and beds being too much, too little, and just right of some specific characteristic.  This is exactly where our history of children’s literature ends and our story of productive struggle begins.

Productive struggle works the exact same way. Too much struggle becomes a deterrent and impediment to learning and too little struggle is unmotivating and irrelevant. Only when the struggle is just right do we see learning growth take off much like the final version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Let’s unpack this a bit more.

What is productive struggle?

Productive struggle occurs when the complexity and difficulty of the task or experience is challenging enough so that the learner must devote significant cognitive resources to make progress in that task or experience, but is provided the necessary supports and scaffolds to prevent frustration or discouragement. When productive struggle is achieved for our learners, we see an average growth or effect size in learners of 0.74 standard deviations (Visible Learning MetaX, 2021).  This effect size translates into a year and half worth of growth.  Barbara Blackburn describes productive struggle as the learner’s sweet spot (Blackburn, 2018) or, as we now know, follows the Goldilocks Principle.  Whether you prefer the learner’s sweet spot or the Goldilocks Principle, productive struggle means different things to different learners. For example, what is complex for one learner may not be as complex for another.  What is difficult for some students may not be as difficult for others. Being clear about what is meant by complexity and difficulty is the first step in finding the sweet spot or Goldilocks Zone for our learners.

Complexity describes the level of thinking required to engage in the learning task or experience. For example, to identify figurative language is less cognitively complex than comparing and contrasting how authors use figurative language to help the reader better understand the text – especially if text sets are new to the learners. Similarly, analyzing a historical document for purpose, message, and audience represents greater cognitive complexity than listing the characteristics of a specific historical event.

Difficulty, then, describes the amount of effort required to engage in the learning task or experience, accomplish the task, and meet the expected learning intention and success criteria.  Solving to 25 mathematics problems contains a greater degree of difficulty than solving two very different mathematics questions and summarizing the processes used to solve each problem. Likewise, working through a multistep laboratory investigation is less difficult than working through a laboratory investigation and writing up a laboratory report to go with it. But again, if the 25 mathematics problems are problems that I have mastered, this may not be the case. This is what makes this task so challenging – finding the sweetspot or the Goldilocks Zone is, well, our own productive struggle. However, the return on investment makes it worth our while.

So how do we best approach this productive struggle with productive struggle? The tasks and experiences that we plan, design, and implement to move learning forward can be described in terms of both complexity and difficulty. When both difficulty and complexity are high, students are likely to struggle—and struggle is important to the learning process. That’s not to say that all tasks and experiences should be a struggle for students all of the time, but rather that teachers should strategically place students in situations that require struggle so that they can extend their learning.

Productive struggle is about the quality of the learning task or experience, not the quantity. This means we must intentionally, deliberately, and purposefully design our tasks and experiences to include elements that enhance the quality for all learners based on what they need to move their learning forward. Some ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • access to a variety complex texts,
  • setting the expectation that learners must support all of their thinking by citing evidence,
  • engage learners in informational text that expands their background knowledge about topics,
  • ensure that learners engage with different types of knowledge: declarative, procedural, and conditional learning, and
  • integrating content, skills, and understandings across multiple disciplines.

Let’s return to the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. What is most interesting is that Goldilocks sampled the chairs, soup, and bed until she found the one that was most comfortable, not too hot, and just the right level of softness. In other words, just right. The key here is the sampling. In our schools and classrooms, this sampling is analogous to constant progress monitoring and formative evaluation. As teachers, we will on occasion miss the mark on productive struggle. Some days we will design and implement experiences and tasks that are too hard and other days too easy. But, we only know this when we are constantly gathering evidence of student learning so that we can make those adjustments to get it just right. Remember, getting it right took Robert Southey three iterations of his original story.


Blackburn, B. R. (2018). Rigor is not a four-letter word. New York, NY: Routledge.

Elms, A. C. (1977). The three bears: Four interpretations. The Journal of American Folklore, 90

(357), 257 – 273.

Visible Learning MetaX. (2021, August). Retrieved from

Written by

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.   Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books.    Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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