Productive Struggle: An Approach that Fosters Critical Thinking

productive struggle math worksheet

This guest post was written by Kristin Owens, Assistant Director of STEM area.

Why is math class not the setting for most made-for-TV movies? Frankly, it is often lacking many of the elements we find most entertaining: suspense, drama, edge-of-your-seat action. TV audiences are not particularly engaged by lectures, note-taking, and example problems. And neither are students. An approach called productive struggle could change that!

What is productive struggle?

Imagine a group of students hunched around a worksheet containing a set of block figures. Each figure has the same shape, but the number of blocks in each increases consistently from the first figure to the last. The students must formulate an equation to calculate the number of blocks in each figure. And that is the extent of their instructions.

While you may not be on the edge of your seat, the opening scene has set the stage for an exercise in productive struggle. Watch what happens next!

The process of productive struggle

Now that the teacher has assigned the worksheet, this is how the process of productive struggle unfolds. The students creep up on the worksheet tentatively. There is much pointing of pencils, counting of blocks, and scribbling on scratch paper. Ideas begin to emerge and get tossed back and forth. And the teacher appears.

The teacher asks the group to describe what they notice about the figures. He or she listens patiently, making sure that each student offers an observation. Based on their statements, the teacher asks more questions- the kind that leads students toward formulating an equation. The students see their chance and pounce on it- can you give us a hint to get us started? How do we begin? Our brave teacher smiles, tells them they have already begun, and glides off toward the next group.

What? Wait! Where are you going? You have to help us!

Let the struggle begin!

Sure, this scene may not be as engaging as your favorite crime drama, but it is still very different than your average math lesson. Productive struggle is the art of asking the right questions to lead students toward finding the answer without doing the work for them. The act of putting students in control of figuring things out for themselves is not a new idea; we certainly hope students can fly solo when they are doing their evening homework assignment. The homework assignment usually follows a lesson that reads “I do” then “We do”, with homework being the “You do” portion. Productive struggle cuts to the chase and quickly arrives at “You do”. How did the teacher set this up?

In addition to enhancing communication and interpersonal skills, productive struggle helps students view math through the lens of critical thinking. Click To Tweet

Implementing productive struggle in a curriculum

First off, the students must have the necessary skills to actually do what they are being asked to do. In this case, they must be familiar enough with algebra to assign variables and observant enough to notice patterns. The struggle here is connecting the pattern with a mathematical process. To facilitate this, the teacher, as part of lesson planning, brainstormed a list of questions that students could potentially ask. They prepared answers for each, plus follow-up questions to drive the activity forward. Think of the follow-up questions as little seeds, not little directions.


Looking for ways to keep students engaged?

Download the article, Getting Learners Actively Involved

Why is productive struggle so productive?

In addition to enhancing communication and interpersonal skills, students also begin to view math through the lens of critical thinking. They have to write their own stories for solving the problem. Once they realize the frustration they feel is actually making them curious instead of furious, they begin to find value in the activity. Rather than viewing math as a set of problems to do, the problems themselves become the mysteries- and the students become the heroes in their own stories.

To summarize, productive struggle is an excellent approach to foster critical thinking skills. It helps the learner take the lead on their learning and arrive at solutions independently.


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