User Generated Education

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Letting Your Learners Experience Productive Struggle

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I came into teaching through a non-traditional, backdoor route – through a graduate degree in counselor education and through being an adventure therapist, whereby I took at-risk youth on extended wilderness trips. There have been a plethora of lessons I learned through these experiences that have served me well as a teacher.

As part of my counselor training, we were taught to not try to take away a client’s pain or struggle; that they often need to experience these struggles in order to move forward. My role during client distress was not to try to take their pain away but to offer my presence, listening skills, and being a witness to their stories.

As an adventure therapist, the youth often had a difficult time during wilderness activities such as rock climbing, rappelling, and the wilderness solo (spending 24 hours alone). Many become scared and wanted to give up. My role during these times was to encourage them and not let them give up. The results of successfully completing these activities that seemed unsurmountable were feelings of accomplishment; an increase of positive self-esteem.

This often seems contrary to being in a role of a helper, either as a counselor or as a teacher. Being a helper translates into wanting to take away the struggles and pain of others. The paradox becomes in that by allowing our clients or students to work through their pain and struggles, it helps them to grow.

Productive Struggle

In 1910, John Dewey described learning as beginning with a dilemma—an uncertainty about how to proceed. Struggling to work through uncertainty and ambiguity to discover a solution was, for Dewey, essential to meaningful learning. Struggling and persisting in the face of uncertainty is finding its way back into prescriptions for good classroom practice. Advocates for meaningful struggle recommend that teachers avoid telling students how to solve problems. Instead, teachers are urged to allow students to wrestle with a problem and try to solve it themselves.

Engaging students in productive struggle is a challenge for teachers as well as the students. It takes time, persistence, and some experimenting to plan rich learning opportunities that challenge but don’t frustrate students. Activities need to stretch students’ thinking and performance just beyond the level they can do on their own. Struggle works and does not frustrate when students have the knowledge and tools to tackle novel problems—ones they’ve not seen before, and are just beyond what they’ve already learned and mastered.

Another crucial teaching role in productive struggle lessons is providing timely assistance. When a challenging task opens a productive-struggle zone, the teacher’s judgment is again critical. Success depends on teachers recognizing when a little timely assistance sustains student persistence but does not prematurely terminate productive struggle and learning.

Getting the right balance can be difficult. For teachers accustomed to avoiding student struggles, there is temptation to intervene and help students get the right answers. To do so runs the risk of turning the activity into the classic recitation-style lesson—turning students into passive receivers of knowledge and teachers into “tellers.” (Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle)

Maker Education and Productive Struggle

I’ve been integrating maker education activities into my gifted classes for the past several years. The ill-defined tasks that often characterize maker education create situations whereby my learners often struggle. In fact, I’ve had 6th grade boys cry due to this. Being gifted, they’ve developed a school history of being able to quickly and successfully the tasks given to them so when given tasks they can’t do easily, they become distressed.

I also teach summer camps with a maker education focus. This past week I taught Toy Making and Hacking to 2nd through 6th graders. Many of them struggled and due to these struggles quickly exclaimed, “I can’t do this.” This occurred mainly during the Toy Take Apart and Repurposing and through making Wiggle Bots.

Assisting Learners With Their Productive Struggles

First and foremost, I let them struggle. Second, I say to my learners who struggle and want me to fix it – do it for them something such as:

  • I know you can figure it out.
  • I won’t do it for you. I have faith that you can do it.
  • You got this.
  • Take as much time as you need. There is no time limit.
  • Why not try for ___ minutes? If you don’t get it by then, I’ll help you.
  • What steps can you take in order to be successful?
  • Why not ask a classmate how they worked on the problem?
  • You might want to try something different.

Finally, I do offer and give help to those who have struggled and are reaching high levels of stress.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 13, 2019 at 4:40 pm

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