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The Power of Productive Struggle

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

That split took me like 6 hours to figure out y’all.

It was the difference between a single finger click and a two finger click! Lol

We know we are supposed to have productive struggle in math class…but is it really that important? Can’t we just show them how to get the answer and then they do it and get it? It’s so much quicker and easier!

Well the truth is it really is that important.

But to illustrate why I’ll use a context other than math.

So I started this company knowing nothing about owning or running a business. No one told me exactly what to do. I had people help me, yes…but no one walked me through from start to finish. Let’s just focus on one of the many things I did to be ready to launch my business…creating my free webinar about the 4 SHIFTS Schools Must Make To Close Math Achievement Gaps.

So to make this webinar I used many of the skills that I have learned already as an educator. I brainstormed a list of all the things schools are doing wrong. I categorized those things into 4 categories which would become the 4 shifts. I developed a slideshow so that I had a clear visual representation for my customers because our brains remember pictures better than text. One new thing I had to figure out was how to color match in my slides so that the colors match my logo and my “brand.” (I did quite a bit of reading on marketing and branding too.) I recorded my presentation and sent it to my friend Tamara for feedback. I revised and revised and revised. Just when I thought it was perfect I uploaded it to my YouTube channel so that it could easily link to my web page.

Once I uploaded my video and listened to it again I realized I made a mistake on ONE WORD. Now I had this almost perfect 15 minute webinar that wasn’t right because that one word. I had to fix it. But I have always shot my YouTube videos using my phone and edited them in iMovie right on my phone. This webinar was too big to save to my phone. I had to bust out my Mac from college, download iMovie, and figure out how to cut this tiny section out. It took me FOREVER to figure this out. It was not the same as on the mobile app. I researched what to do. I asked for help. I tried so many things. I messed up a bunch of times, learned a lot through messing up, and then I finally figured it out! (Sounds kinda like math class huh?)

It was truly productive struggle! I finally got my webinar just right! But what about before I figured it out? When I worked so hard on my webinar but it wasn’t perfect? Did my work at that time have no value? If I couldn’t make a perfect webinar, could I really run my own business? I know that seems exaggerated, but how many of our kids feel like if they don’t get the answer the first time or on the first day, that they must just be failing at math?

Of course my work had value! There was one thing wrong and a ton of stuff right. That right stuff still counts. Just like in math. A student can make a mistake or have a wrong answer but still have a ton of understanding. That’s why we shouldn’t just focus on answers when we assess students.

What if I just gave up when I couldn’t figure it out? Would I ever have even started my own business if I gave up as soon as I experienced failure? No way! I can tell you right now that I am 100% confident that my business will work because although I do not know everything, I have massive persistence and I’m not afraid to fail. I know that failure is part of success. But kids in math class don’t always realize this if we don’t TELL THEM THAT PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE IS LEARNING! They may think that if they fail, that means they are FAILURES. And we know that’s not true. It feels great to get the answer after hard work, but the real value are the skills you learn through the struggle, because those skills transfer to ANY AREA OF LIFE!

With computers and automation doing all the busy work for us these days, it is imperative that our students learn how to be creative problem solvers to be successful in life. Kids do not develop resilience and confidence from copying what the teacher did. That’s not even problem solving at all. That’s just copying. Kids develop problem solving skills through struggle and overcoming failure. They learn through using tools, trying different strategies, collaborating with others, and asking for help when they need it.

Y’all if we want our students to be successful in math and in life, we have got to intentionally plan for and support productive struggle. That way, no matter what our students decide to do in their lives, they will have the skills they need to be successful, even when it gets difficult.

Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. Perfection is a myth.

Value the EXPERIENCE of learning over the final outcome and everything else will fall into place.

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