Productive struggle has become a common phrase in learning conversations amongst educators. It is something that instructional leaders are looking for in classrooms, and when it is present, it is a great indication that students are engaged in the kind of rigorous learning that will lead to their academic growth as measured by assessments such as MAP and TVAAS. But how do we identify it, and how do teachers create it? Many of our inquiry cycles across MNPS schools have uncovered a need for greater productive struggle among the students, and a reader requested some answers to these questions.

One way that students can become engaged in productive struggle is when they are engaged in a task that is beyond their current ability. Vygotsky referred to this as students’ zone of proximal development (ZPD), and this is why teacher knowledge of students is so important. Excessive challenge can lead to frustration and checking out, and insufficient challenge creates boredom and resistance to the work. Principal Shavon Davis-Louis of JFK Middle offered this article about the importance of delivering instruction in this zone to challenge productively and avoid student “spinning.” Challenging questions and tasks have been a major focus of our district math and ELA professional development over the past several years.


Productive struggle is visible. An observer might see a student working independently to plan out/write an essay or responding to higher-level questions that require citing information. In math, a task or real-world problem that students have to think through can create productive struggle. Typically you see students revising their work, asking clarifying questions, and discussing their thinking with their peers and teacher. High student engagement is an obvious look-for of productive struggle.

The teacher’s role is different in classrooms characterized by productive struggle. The teacher gives few answers and instead asks questions that will lead students to the answer. The teacher acts as an investigator of how students are generally thinking through a task, and they mid-course correct the group’s thinking when needed. Students are often challenged to think about their thinking (metacognition) as the teacher has anticipated student responses to the questions or task. This shifting of responsibility for the thinking to the students empowers them as learners and problem-solvers, building their confidence. An important caveat is, in thinking back to the ZPD, the teacher has to be careful to support each student to ensure their development over the lesson and unit.

What about the environment of the classroom allows for productive struggle? The culture of the classroom is foundational because students will not take ownership without the right conditions in place. First is safety as it must be okay for students to offer incorrect answers and make mistakes. The resiliency of failing and restarting builds perseverance amidst challenge. The teacher has to believe that each student is capable of learning the material and teach and encourage students to have a growth mindset. The class needs to be a community of learners who support each other. The idea of a team working together is often utilized and effective.

One thing our principal network has been discovering is it’s important that teachers have a good grasp on some of the fundamentals of teaching (TEAM instruction rubric SO, MS, PIC, LSP, AM, GS, TCK, and TKS) before turning over more ownership to the students.

I hope this description of productive struggle is helpful as we guide educators towards this vision for classroom instruction. Be encouraged and empowered this week as we continue to push student thinking and ownership of learning!

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