Opinion
Professional Development Opinion

What Makes Struggle Productive?

By Starr Sackstein — November 15, 2016 3 min read
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“I can’t do this! It’s too hard.”

For some, stamina is low and the frustration levels are high. So quick to quit as soon as they encounter an obstacle that they render themselves paralyzed from the experience.

Perhaps some really can’t do it, but for others, complaining that they can’t has elicited the “help” they wanted to avoid the task altogether.

How many times have we encountered students saying or doing these things in our classes? How many adults do we know that suffer from the same affliction?

Although struggle is a first step to critical thinking, how do we know when it is productive struggle and when it is too much?

Perhaps, in this age of instant gratification, we have become adept at manipulating situations to avoid any kind of real struggle that may foster grit or perseverance in an effort to take the easy way out. Or maybe, the skills and strategies haven’t been explicitly and adequately taught in the past.

Lev Vygotsky believed that if we had students working in the proper Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), with the right scaffolds, students could work through challenging tasks. However, if the work was too easy or too hard, they would not take the necessary learning away from the task.

As an educator in this age, I wonder if there is an additional layer of skill sets that have to do with developing stamina and an ability to persevere through challenging tasks. It does seem innate in some of us that we will continue to work through a task because we have a growth mindset while others succumb to the challenge, readily willing to give up.

But how do we know the difference?

Some things you may ask yourself when trying to decipher whether or not students or colleagues are out of their depths or if they need to bolster their level of grit:


  • Note the kinds of tasks that setting your students off. What kinds of behaviors are they exhibiting? Disruptive ones or apathetic ones?
  • How long does it take for students to exhibit these behaviors after being given a task?
  • Are you sure they understand the task they are being asked to do?
  • Have you tried to differentiate the way you ask them to do it?
  • Are students capable of doing the task? How do you know?
  • Are there protocols in place to help students persevere if they don’t “get it” on the first try?
  • Have skills been explicitly taught in class to help them combat these challenges? For example are there peer helpers in place before the teacher is employed?
  • Have you built a culture in the class where failure is just the first step in the learning process and is valued or do you use failure as a weapon to keep students in line?

We need to be acutely aware of the efforts students are putting forth (and now as a teacher coach, my colleagues). If they are trying and still not getting it, we need to ask ourselves why? Did we miss a step in the teaching process? Did we do too much in model that made it impossible for them to replicate it on their own? Have we offered multiple opportunities for them to try before we determined they needed help beyond what was offered?

Many students work hard when it comes to doing the things they connect with like playing a sport or learning a musical instrument; even gaming generates opportunities to persist. Candy Crush, for example, says you “failed” when you don’t complete a level. Yet, we don’t throw our hands up in the air and never return to the game. We keep playing until we pass, and sometimes we even continue to play to surpass an earlier score. However, students don’t connect these skills to their learning. We have to make it transparent.

It’s time for us to spend time with our students and show them the struggle. It’s real. Learning can be challenging but it can also be very rewarding if given the proper frame.

How are you framing learning in your space and how are you pushing students to grow? Please share

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