Wait a minute!? What do you mean failure is good?! Let’s talk productive struggle.
Last Friday, we talked a little bit about the benefits of productive struggle. For many of us, the thought of creating struggle for students who already seem stressed, and at a boiling point before they even hit the door seems like an uncommonly bad idea. However, if we create a safe environment for students to fail and struggle in, those students develop many of the higher level problem solving and critical thinking skills they need in today’s world. They create stamina, persistence, and patience. Care needs to be taken as you set these type of situations up for your students/classes. Students need to be able to experience success at some level through the process, and the success they feel must be their own. You as the teacher just facilitate the discussion. You are not up front presenting material. The students are discovering the material you are hoping to teach them. This will create struggle. They are not used to having to think, or come up with their own ideas in math especially. For example, “Why is 4 x 4 called a square number?” Normally we teach what squaring a number is, but this could be discovered easily by almost all students through a carefully guided mostly student led classroom discussion where by the end students truly understand what any square number is (n x n).
High strung classes will need to be eased into these type of experiences gently – these are often your “high” achievers, so they are not used to struggling. This end of the learning spectrum get easily frustrated with you as the teacher for not “just giving” them the rules or process by which something is done. Natural curiosity has been muted by the need to get a good grade. “I don’t care if the visual will help me learn. I don’t understand the visual. I don’t want to understand the visual, or why the process exists, just tell me how do do it.” They stare sarcastic dagars at you if you ask them to explain “why”.
Your low students have experienced failure for so long, it is like pulling teeth to get them to engage in anything at any level. “1 + 1 you say, I don’t know that one.” They will need to be praised, and have their contributions valued more vocally from the start. You will have to ease them back into engaging in the struggle. They have heard the “Charlie Brown” teacher droning on enough they have long since learned to tune you out. They have walls of defense around them they have built up for years. I am not successful in math. If I wait long enough, they will feel sorry for me and just do the problem for me. It has always been a struggle for these students, and they quit the battle long ago.
So how do you solve the issue of introducing productive struggle into your classroom at both levels. Start slow. Before you even attempt this type of activity, teach your class how to give and take constructive criticism without being mean or being offended. Be a kind skeptic. If someone questions you, find an honest answer. Assume, the person who is questioning is also genuinely curious. If you are giving an answer, give it in a kind way. No snarky answers including things like, “It just is.” or “Can’t you see that?” If a class cannot be supportive during struggle, then feelings get hurt and the struggle is NOT productive. Start with very visual problems, where everyone can be successful because they can see it. Take time to praise anyone who adds to or deepens the discussion. Once the class gets to this point, you can try to teach content this way. It will deepen the understanding of the material, and create side effects like persistence and problem solving. Below is a link to a discussion on productive struggle including an example of grade level content being taught.