Struggle is Not a Dirty Word: The Importance of Productive Struggle, part 1

By Krista Morrison and Kristi Hemingway

Teachers and administrators often report that the most valuable part of the Inquiry By Design professional development cycle is peer learning labs. Teachers have the opportunity to observe a colleague’s classroom as a lesson from the curriculum is being implemented with students. The goal is not to observe a “model” lesson or “perfect” classroom, but rather to gather data and provide a basis for conversations about teaching and learning.

At a recent lab, middle school students were comparing the specific wording and types of information provided in two different articles on the same topic in order to draw conclusions about the authors’ tone. Tone is a difficult and slippery concept, even for adults, and the students were struggling through much of the lesson to really pin down the indicative details in the articles.

In the debrief conversation following the observation many of the teachers struggled with how much the students had struggled. A variety of “rescue strategies” were proposed.

“Maybe there could have been a pre-lesson.”

“Perhaps more explicit modeling.”

“They needed some written examples before having to find their own examples in the text.”


Sensing that the conversation was taking on the “tone” of a critique, the teachers turned their observations toward the ways in which the students had, indeed, eventually “gotten it.” That being the case, why had their struggle felt so uncomfortable for us? So much so that we were brainstorming ways to prevent and pre-empt its occurrence? Even during the observation, I had been sensing the observers’ nearly irresistible urges to get involved in the instruction to help rescue the struggling students.

Yet, it is in these very moments of struggle that students learn the cognitive strategies for dealing with difficulty. They learn how to ask relevant questions, they identify difficult moments in the text and acknowledge them for what they are—difficult moments—to be tackled rather than avoided. In the spirit of rescuing students, teachers sometimes end up doing all the work, from providing definition for every potential unknown word, to detailing and summarizing a text before students have even read it.

So often, it is how we deal with difficult moments in life that help us grow and learn, reflect and succeed. It is in our moments of failure that we adjust and identify more successful approaches to overcoming difficulty. The same is true for students when working with difficult texts or through difficult tasks, as long as they are also provided appropriate scaffolds and a nurturing environment. While the teachers in the example felt the need to rush in and rescue students, they came to realize, in the end, that a variety of instructional moves were already in place that supported students to eventually “get it.” The instructional process imbedded in the curriculum was designed to lead students to exactly the place where they ended up. This is the process of productive struggle. Students weren’t rescued; they were supported.

For many teachers, this line between rescuing and supporting is blurry and even uncomfortable, as in the opening anecdote. We see it as very much a part of our role to alleviate struggle, to preempt discouragement, to enable success in whatever ways necessary and to make students’ path to learning smooth. How can we begin to trust the process and allow students to experience productive struggle, while still providing support for eventual success?

Join us next week when we’ll discuss the role of collaboration in productive struggle.

Collaboration and Environment: The Importance of Productive Struggle, Part 2