Teaching Tip: Struggle is not always productive

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June 8, 2017 by HCDE Communications

strugglesMany of us in education like to say that learning is not just about getting the right answer — it’s about the process of solving problems. The harder you have to think, the story goes, the more you’re learning. Dan Finkle’s TEDx Talk, “Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching,” would seem to agree with this premise, and he does a good job of advocating for engaging students through struggle and play.

However, as Greg Ashman has pointed out, the School of Struggle can lead students down a dark path of non-instruction that is frustrating and unfair. “We have known since the 1980s that asking students to struggle at solving problems with little teacher guidance is a terrible way of teaching,” Ashman writes, adding that that Finkle’s type of problem-based learning is “inequitable.”

Productive struggle needs to be differentiated for our students. Those accessing the material at a lower knowledge level may get confused, and the struggle ends up doing the opposite of motivating or engaging. Before teachers jump on board the problem-based learning bandwagon, they should consider the ways that difficulty can be too high — and harmful to the student.

(Contributed by Nicole Shanahan, curriculum director for mathematics, HCDE’s Teaching and Learning Center)

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