Productive Struggle

by Pam Meader

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” — Thomas Edison

This summer I was watching my two year old granddaughter try to pull herself up into a chair. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t figure out how to get her foot out to sit down. She became frustrated and started to cry and of course, my instinct was to run over and do it for her. My husband stopped me and said to let her figure it out for herself. After much persistent effort, she did figure it out and her smile was priceless. She then proceeded to climb up and down the chair, practicing her new-found ability.

Why am I sharing this? Because I know we may feel that that same urge to help when working with struggling math students. We nurture, show examples, and practically do the problem for them so they won’t get discouraged. However, research suggests that real learning requires struggle. As teachers, our job is to not rescue our students but rather to help our students struggle productively.

Our students struggle for various reasons, including a lack background knowledge, conceptual understanding, and/or prodecural fluency. Some haven’t put in sufficient practice time. Still others haven’t developed important “soft skills” such as effective study habits, or knowing what questions to ask. Recently, I listened to a Mindsteps, Inc. webinar ( that addressed how to nurture a climate of productive struggle. Allowing students to struggle doesn’t mean not giving any support. Rather, as a teacher you anticipate where struggle might occur and prepare strategies students could try to persevere when they get stuck. If a student succeeds with a strategy, have them explain it and use it again. If a particular strategy doesn’t work for the student, offer others. The goal is to have students focus on the process of their learning rather than focusing on outcomes like a test score.

Simply leaving students on their own with no support leads to frustration, and many will eventually give up. The benefit of productive struggle is that the teacher is neither hand-holding students nor leaving them adrift; rather she gives students an opportunity and the tools to grapple with a concept independently. As students become accustomed to productive struggle and experience success arriving at their own solutions, they come to understand the point of struggle. Students learn how to learn and refine their strategies, developing resilience and persistence along the way.

Standard 1 of the Mathematical Practices is, “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them”. Mathematically proficient students have the strategies that can be learned from productive struggle. Allowing for productive struggle in your classroom is essential for your students. They will be willing to take more risks and not be afraid to fail if they understand that the struggle is learning.


SAMSUNGPam is a Senior Professional Development Specialist for the SABES PD Center for Mathematics and Adult Numeracy professional development initiative for Massachusetts. Pam is a former high school math teacher and has taught math in adult education for over 25 years. She helped co-develop Adults Reaching Algebra Readiness (AR)2 with Donna Curry. She is a national trainer for LINCS and ANI (Adult Numeracy Instruction). Pam enjoys sharing techniques for teaching math conceptually from Basic Math through Algebra and has co-authored the Hands On Math series for Walch Publishing in Portland, Maine.