The value of productive struggle

Posted on April 13th, 2021 by

A colleague teaching trigonometry with inquiry-based learning sent me a complaint a student had made to his department chair. The student’s issue was “He doesn’t teach anything, he just stands there and keeps asking me questions!”. To me, this encapsulates the difference between encouraging or discouraging struggle in the classroom.

If is comfortable for students to be presented with a lecture. There are facts and procedures to memorize, and to be recited. An instructor can break the material down into smaller and smaller pieces, so that each step is so closely related to the next, no leaps of logic or potentially wrong conclusions will ever occur. It can be comfortable for the instructor too! It is easier to write a lecture based on a topic you already know well than it is to devise careful questions that get the student to discover the truth for themselves.

A coach of mine once said, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” A student who is spoon fed a list of algorithms might “know calculus” at the end of the process, but do they really understand the subject and it’s uses?

A student who is allowed to struggle will grow. They will learn how to fail, and how to come back stronger from that failure. They will have the skills to tackle new and challenging problems outside of the classroom. The struggle can be productive, and we as teachers, can ensure that it is so.


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