Productive Struggling

Claire Overstake    

Should we allow students to struggle in the classroom?

    Of course we should. Struggling teaches students perseverance, teaches students that everything won’t be easy and that some things in life are worth fighting for. When we introduce complexity into our classrooms, we allow students to grow not only academically, but also personally as they overcome obstacles, find other ways to attack problems, and learn to think outside the box. However, to help students the most, and to build an enduring attitude that challenges can be overcome, instructors must find ways to make the struggle beneficial and educational.

    Please keep in mind that there is a distinct difference between futile frustration and productive struggle. As instructors, we need, to paraphrase “Apollo 13,” to make failure not the final option. If I have not prepared a student, or they truly don’t understand, it is futile for them to spend time struggling to overcome something they are not prepared to do. However, if a student is prepared, and does understand, but the work is difficult, then they are ready for productive learning, which may include productive struggling.

    As an instructor, it is important to know your students and to learn if they are experiencing futile frustration or productive struggle. If a student attempts the challenging problems and struggles, that struggle needs to be productive eventually. It doesn’t mean they earn a 100 percent, but that the student learns that the struggle itself was worthwhile. In my middle-school class, we talk about neurons firing when a student is struggling with an answer, and we wait for the student to work through possibilities. We learn how to bounce ideas off each other, to write statements and then question them, to think out loud and on paper, to draw in our notebooks, to respect each other’s ideas and then to build on them together, and to honor the struggle as part of the process. Most of my students relate well to learning to shoot a layup and the struggle it was (or is) to shoot with the nondominant hand. We use this analogy when we are productively struggling to learn. “It’s just like shooting a layup” is a safe way for a student to let me or their partners know they are struggling. It is my job to prepare them to overcome adversity in all parts of their lives.

    Unfortunately, we have all had students who, somewhere in the past, have been taught it is better to not attempt a problem rather than to attempt it and fail. They sit and do their best to be invisible; most won’t raise their hand, don’t do any work when they are in a group, and do little classwork or homework. Somewhere in their past, the struggle was such a futile frustration that they quit trying. These students have to be retaught to struggle productively. If I allow students to miss the hard questions because they chose not to answer them, then I am teaching them that when the work is complex, when things get difficult, it is an appropriate alternative to not attempt to meet the challenge. These are the students that we must reteach that failure is not a final option. We must come along beside them and reteach them how to struggle productively, which is not an easy task. They need to see us acknowledge students who persevere. We have to work to build in them the knowledge that struggling is an important part of life and awaken in them the confidence that they can struggle productively.

    How? We need to build an environment in our classrooms where failure is not an option because struggling and perseverance are as important as the correct answer. We need to teach perseverance and model different ways of working through complex challenges. By teaching our students how to struggle productively, they should not be overcome by frustration. Science classes are the perfect environments to teach and encourage perseverance. Students can learn about inventors’ failures and successes and how they overcame problems through perseverance and productive struggle. Students can experience their own failures and successes through experiments and inquiry. In science classes, instructors have many opportunities to introduce complex problems and issues and allow students to struggle as they try a variety of solutions. Students learn to communicate about the ideas and solutions they’ve already tried that failed and to work together to find alternative solutions that are successful. These communication skills, and the perseverance to solve a problem that is difficult, are skills that employers find valuable in the workplace.

    We need to give our students chances to learn from productive struggle, with engaging, purposefully difficult problems. We need to ask challenging questions and to allow students the time to work out solutions, encouraging them through failures and allowing them to do it again and again and again if needed. As I walk my classroom and listen to students working together, trying a variety of solutions to solve a problem, they reflect my own willingness to struggle and overcome. We have conversations about difficulties; we talk about disabilities; we build an environment where failure happens - but it isn’t the final option. We may spend twice as long on a lab as I had wanted, but their productive struggles are worth the extra effort to introduce ways to overcome adversities.

   Should we allow students to struggle in the classroom? Yes, if it is part of a productive struggle that enhances learning concepts and builds perseverance and self-esteem.


Claire Overstake has been teaching for more than 25 years. She currently teaches sixth grade science at Stucky Middle School in Wichita, KS. In 2010, she earned the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation's highest honor for public school science teaching. Claire is a member of the Kansas State Science and Engineering State Fair Board and the Kansas Exemplary Educators Network. She is a resource person for the American Meteorological Society, a master teacher mentoring first-year teachers, and serves on the science team adapting next generation science standards. In 2014, Claire earned the district's Excellence in Public Service Award. She and her author husband Grant live in Wichita.