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Productive Struggle

Edwords (ěd · words) n. 1. PreK-12 glossary breaking through buzzwords to solve the challenge of a common definition. 2. Renaissance® resource to help educators take part in discussion, debate, and meaningful discourse. 3. Educators’ jargon buster.

What is productive struggle?

Mathematics is not solely about getting the right answers—it’s about the process as well. Productive struggle is developing strong habits of mind, such as perseverance and thinking flexibly, instead of simply seeking the correct solution. Not knowing how to solve a problem at the outset should be expected. The key is working through a problem, encouraging students to think outside the box, and not letting them get discouraged if their initial strategies don’t work.

Students thrive with the right amount of productive struggle.

What are the benefits of productive struggle?

Mathematics doesn’t always make sense. Not every problem-solving method will click with every student; we all think differently. Productive struggle encourages students to attack the problem in a way that makes sense to them. For example, some students may visually draw out the problem using boxes or shapes, while others may break the numbers down into friendlier numbers. Students build perseverance through trial-and-error and employing a variety of strategies.

Productive struggle also immerses your students in authentic engagement. As each student attempts to solve a problem, they ask themselves questions: What is the question asking? What information is provided? What part might give me trouble? Does anything jump out at me right away? Questions like these engage your students in the problem, deepen comprehension, and provide them with a rich context of the situation that lends itself to a lively discussion later.

How do I work productive struggle into my math lessons?

This can be as simple as giving your students a problem and taking a step back, allowing them to work through the problem on their own. If students struggle and ask for help, offer alternate starting points, but stray from giving hints. For example:Susan likes to read. Over the summer, she checked out a lot of books from her local library. She checked out 13 books on animals, 9 books on space, and 16 books on sports. How many books did she check out in all?

Productive Stuggle

If a student struggles, you could ask the student what he or she would like to use to represent the books. Prompting the student with a problem solving strategy, in this case, make a model, will foster critical thinking. (It is also is a way to engage students in personalized learning.)

By starting class with independent work time and shifting to facilitated discourse after students have solved the problem, students gain tremendous insight into the world of mathematics and develop a growth mindset, making them eager to tackle more problems.

Why does it matter, anyway?

Productive struggle promotes comprehension and mastery. It gives students a variety of options to solve a problem and lessens their dependency on being spoon-fed answers. Traditionally, we’ve been taught that there are certain ways to solve problems in mathematics, which is why some students share a strong dislike for it. Productive struggle breaks that stereotype and places the emphasis on your student and their ideas.


Cowen, Ellie (2016). Harnessing the Power of the Productive Struggle. Edutopia. Retrieved from:

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