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Why You and Your Learners Benefit from Productive Struggle

Productive struggle is a buzzword in education. But what does it mean to you, your learners, and me?

Mathematics researcher Manu Kapur developed the theory of productive struggle—the idea that attempting to perform a task and initially failing can improve learning.

Productive struggle, according to Kapur, has two parts:

  1. Students have a problem or task that they probably can't solve. They're encouraged to speculate about possible solutions and experiment.

  2. Next, after their initial failed attempts, they receive instruction that assists them in successfully completing the task, and they're encouraged to try again.

In Kapur's studies, students scored better in conceptual knowledge when taught in productive struggle situations. Students who had opportunities to fail forward resulted in deeper learning.

Overcoming difficulties leads to deeper, lasting learning.

How do you apply productive struggle to your life and your learners?

The following story outlines how to ensure you incorporate productive struggle at a "just right" rate.

Thirteen years ago, I was an avid runner. My feet hit the pavement in many countries striding many miles. Running half-marathons was my thing. But then, my left foot wouldn't work.

After a complete consultation from a top foot doctor, I learned that I had Haglund's deformity. It's a boney enlargement on the back of the heel. It causes the Achilles tendon to stretch an extra "mile". As you get older, the tendon isn't soft, supple, and willing to extend. Hence, immense pain for a runner.

The Achilles tendon problem was solved, but I couldn't resume running for years. When I began running again, I was over-the-top excited. My runner's high made me run farther than I was physically ready to do. My mind said, yes. My body said, nope.

I found myself back at the foot doctor. This time, thankfully, he found nothing wrong except a strained, overworked Achilles tendon. Nevertheless, he advised me to stay off my foot for weeks.

What? I just got back into running!

You see, I neglected an important principle. It's the principle of 10%.

A 10% increase provides a "just right"- Goldilocks- challenge.

In Kapur's theory, we have to fail first as part of productive struggle. I know this to be true when I teach engineering using the engineering design process. However, I don't think designing lessons for students to fail first is a successful modus operandi.


Too much failure leads to frustration.

How about incorporating the 10% increase principle in your life and your lessons instead? By doing so, you take small steps toward a goal. When you and your learners take a step outside your comfort zone and then another and another, you'll experience difficulty. But you'll experience success too. You're in your sweet spot.

The sweet stretch spot leads to growth and gain.

A 10% increase of any given task ensures it's not too easy causing boredom. A 10% increase provides just enough of a challenge preventing an I can't attitude which leads to giving up. It's in the 10% increase in challenge and struggle, you grow. You push yourself and your learners just enough to make positive gains but not get injured.

Carol Dweck's work on a growth mindset helps you understand what is too easy and how to coach learners through struggle. For example, when she encounters a student whose first attempt at a task is rapid and perfect, Dweck says, "Whoops! I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let's do something you can learn from!". She encourages learners to view struggle as a necessary part of learning and growth. She calls it failing forward.

10% increase even when you're motivated to do more prevents pain. Like when I was running. I ran more than my body was capable of doing. It caused me a setback. How often do we push ourselves or our learners to the point of quitting?

Embrace the 10% principle for productive struggle and keep yourself and your learners motivated.

With small, steady increases, you and your learners benefit. Productive struggle leads to prodigious results and more profound, lasting learning.

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Source: Frey, N. & Fisher, D. May, 2017. Lifting School Leaders. (Pages 85-86).

Dweck, Carol. 2006. Growth Mindset. (Page 173).

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