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Productive struggle: What it is and how to achieve it

Productive struggle is another term for developing grit. Two experts share why it's important and how to make it happen.

7 min read


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So many students this year are struggling — struggling to fill in holes from the previous years’ learning, struggling to absorb new material despite those gaps and struggling to find their place in the school’s social community. To get through it, they need to understand and embrace productive struggle.

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Think of the child who spent his entire kindergarten year virtually on Zoom followed by a hybrid first-grade year. That student is now in second grade, and “this may be their first time, full-time, in the classroom. They’ve not only missed some of the physical basics — maybe how to open a school milk carton, sit still, stand in line — but they likely also have some developmental gaps that make it harder to go from the concrete to the more abstract thinking. So students are going to actually have gaps in their brain development,” Morgan State University associate professor Christian Anderson, who works in the teacher education and professional development department, explained during a recent SmartBrief webinar on learning recovery

This developmental pipeline disruption challenges educators to find new ways to measure student learning and student growth. That’s where the acceleration concept comes into play in K-12. In college, a similar disruption has occurred. College freshmen didn’t get that typical experience of the last year or two of high school that helps develop stronger work habits and transitions them to less hand-holding from the teacher, better reliance on note-taking, and an understanding of what’s expected of them, Rosemary Anderson, a licensed mental health practitioner and consultant in private practice (and Christian’s wife), said during the webinar.  

Kanoe Namahoe, SmartBrief Education & Workforce’s Editorial Director, asked how teachers can best deal with this enormous pressure we’re putting on kids. 

“A certain amount of pressure is important in life, and it’s certainly part of the workforce that we all want to get these kids ready for. How do we get students comfortable with struggle, especially as it includes pressure?” she asked.

Walking the line between struggle and trauma

Just like stress can be good or bad, struggle also has two faces. The good kind is productive struggle. 

“There is a fine line between struggle and trauma, and we have to acknowledge that. Some classes can be traumatic for students if they don’t feel successful or if they don’t feel as though they can connect with the teacher,” Christian says. 

Rosemary hears from students who are stressed because the teachers are still standing at the front of the class and trying to deliver content in a way that’s not creative. Lecturing this way “is not firing all of the neural pathways that students need to really connect, to fuse things together. And so we really have to kind of work to help teachers say, ‘Okay, well, what would that lesson look like when I’m integrating social-emotional into an academic problem.’ ” she said.

Approaching lessons with a view of the whole child, as well as offering real-life, experiential lessons put students on the path productive struggle rather than trauma. And productive struggle is really just another term for developing grit, Rosemary says. 

Letting students work in teams is one way to develop grit, Rosemary said, because students can learn that everyone has different learning styles and levels of knowledge, and each can contribute something. Teamwork also teaches social-emotional skills and can improve students’ development of persistence.

Whether students work in teams or individually, teachers should also consistently reinforce with students that they’re not expected to know everything already and that they’re not expected to succeed right away. 

Productive struggle is part of life

“I think students come up against walls and struggle. They still look at that as a bad thing. Like that’s not supposed to be there,” Christian says. He suggests telling students: “We struggle sometimes too. Struggle is part of the life experience. So we want to equip you with tools that you’re going to need to be successful and not crumble — or to understand that when you do crumble, there are ways to recover, and we’re here to help.”

Using real-life examples — such as an athlete, singer, scientist or entrepreneur who constantly practices to improve, even after they’re famous, or grandparents who are asking for help figuring out smartphones or streaming services — can help students see the value in struggle. 

Integrating the social-emotional aspect into learning concepts helps teachers note red flags — each student’s may be different — that indicate when they feel pushed too far. Instead of letting the student keep going and shut down, teachers who recognize what’s happening can quickly intervene to ask questions, suggest a different approach or, with younger students, give them a small break from the subject. Then they bring students back to try again, building grit a little at a time. That’s the productive struggle at work. 

Of course, it helps if teachers are able to get training on this, Christian said, noting that not enough schools are offering this. “We need to give teachers and educators the opportunity to learn this new skill set to work with students, because at the end of the day, everybody from the student to the teacher to the principal, and everybody else involved, wants students to be successful,” he said.

Explaining productive struggle to parents, college students

It also helps to be able to communicate the need for productive struggle with parents, they say. After a couple of years at home, gifted students and their parents may not realize the habits that are necessary, or the expectation that extra reading or more detailed projects are expected. It can be intimidating. Teachers can always try to view lessons from the students’ eyes as they get used to in-person classes again.

“Give parents a road map and communicate where you’re trying to take a young person so that the idea of struggle or developing grit is not misinterpreted,” Rosemary says.

Once a student gets to college, professors can often tell why a student is struggling and see that their work habits aren’t up to par. “The awareness of the faculty member is to really outline and provide support to students to say, ‘Hey, if you want to be successful in this class, these are some of the things that you’re going to have to really kind of take it a step further,’ and be creative in some of the activities they do. Provide a structure and a framework for them to be able to engage with the content and acquire all of the learning necessary for them to go ahead and be successful,” Christian says. 

Rosemary says college faculty can point out to the whole class,  especially when they need to work in teams, that each student has strengths and weaknesses, and they can tap each other’s knowledge to learn.

Struggle is common in life, no matter what a student’s — or adult’s — age. Preparing them for it, embracing it and reminding them that a community of teachers and peers are there to catch them when they stumble can make all the difference, they say.

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn


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