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Creating Productive Struggle in the Classroom

Creating Productive Struggle in the Classroom

You may remember the concept of the zone of proximal development from college. It’s the “Goldilocks zone” of challenge during learning—it refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can attain with guidance—the challenge of learning. It should be accomplished regularly in any classroom.

Among your students, proximal development takes the form of productive struggle. As humans, we are conditioned to avoid struggle and to help others avoid it as well, so it can be difficult for a teacher to watch a student stick on a problem while the rest of the class moves on. But, cognitively, it’s the struggling student who is developing the most. Here’s how to get more of that struggle into your lessons.

Build struggle into the schedule

We get it. Everyone has a tight curriculum and an even tighter pacing guide. There are not enough hours in the day. In the face of that, struggle is inconvenient. The pacing guide assumes best-case scenario, and there is no room for reteaching or letting students fall behind as they wrestle with a concept. But, struggle should be just as indispensable in the classroom as markers.

So, build “struggle blocks” into your lessons after you introduce something new or challenging—batches of time where students will be allowed to wrestle with this new knowledge themselves at their own pace. This is the only way to maintain control of your schedule AND allow students to productively struggle on a regular basis.

Make frequent learning checks

Finding the sweet spot of struggle means knowing where students’ skills are at any moment, which means that you need to conduct frequent formative assessments. Verbal checks help, but consider some short, low-stakes quizzes for the students who may be less likely to contribute in class or those who might have learning differences. At the end of each day, you should know what each student is good at and how he or she may struggle later—bonus points if the students know as well.

Randomize your learning checks

In the interest of staying on schedule, teachers often find themselves calling on students who they are certain will know the answer. This obviously robs the other students of an opportunity to struggle. Playing cards, dice, or phone apps can help you randomize your knowledge checks and make certain that everyone gets a turn, especially those students who really need it.

Avoid celebrating excellence

Every teacher is happy to display examples of exemplary work by students throughout the classroom. The problem is that those shining examples serve as yet another reason for struggling students to give up. Some think that if they cannot create such work, why try? 

Instead, work on celebrating determination and grit and adhering to a process rather than high scores. If you do want to display student work, have the students write a bit about what they went through to get that grade or create that project, reflecting that it was hard work that led to that project. Then, display those stories as well.

Looking for more resources to encourage motivation in your classroom? Check out how these 10 teachers reach and encourage their struggling students!

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Scott Sterling

Scott Sterling is a former English teacher who worked in Title I middle and high schools in St. Petersburg, Florida who is now a freelance writer who focuses on education. He is also a stay-at-home dad to his 4-year-old daughter Lily, who will soon be starting her own educational journey.