How Do You Make Struggling Productive?

Growth from mental struggle

“Productive struggle = responsive teaching”

                (Matt Larson, 2015 NCSM Keynote)

When teachers are implementing high cognitive demand tasks, the most frequent question I am asked is, “How do you get students to persevere through the task and what does productive struggle look like?” Collaborative teams are implementing rich tasks and students are struggling. However, the struggle does not always result in a deeper understanding of the essential learning standard or a moment of student clarity that comes from that “ah-ha” teachers love to observe during a lesson. Sometimes, the struggle only results in frustration, lack of confidence, lack of willingness to stay engaged, and worse, complete shut down for the rest of the day.

The question then remains, what does productive struggle look like and what teacher actions are needed to create and support productive struggle?

One of the eight research-based mathematics teaching practices from Principles to Action is: Support productive struggle in learning Mathematics (NCTM, 2014). Teachers who attend to the details of student thinking while teaching cognitively challenging math tasks build opportunities for productive struggle. They pay attention to the mathematical thinking needed, guide students with probing questions, and encourage student-to-student discourse to support student understanding.

They key to productive struggle is to understand what teacher actions are needed to support productive struggle. To help teachers understand this, I encourage them to complete the table that describes the student actions they might hear and see during productive struggle. Then, describe the teacher actions that promote productive struggle. An example is shown below.

Student actions during productive struggle Teacher actions to support productive struggle
  • Students look for entry points into the task.
  • Students list the given information and describing the goal of the task.
  • Students have choice in the solution pathway and feel empowered by their strategies.
  • Students have a sense of hope as they are struggling – they believe they can conquer the task with effort
  • Students say, “I think I got it and here is why. Let me show you my way of thinking.”
  • Students embrace their mistakes and know that failure will produce a better understanding of the task.
  • Students keep trying even after several failed attempts.


  • Collaborative teams work together to predict any potential misconceptions and create probing questions to get students “un-stuck” (Kanold, et al., 2014)
  • Teachers choose tasks that have multiple entry points (low floor-high ceiling tasks).
  • Teachers create a community where students know that it is okay to make mistakes. Wrong strategies or solutions are analyzed and used to promote understanding.
  • Teachers provide ample time for students to explore the task.
  • Teachers facilitate discussions around misconceptions and asks, “Show me how you know” or “prove it.”
  • Teachers deliver growth-mindset messages as students persevere through the task.

What might you add to the table to have clarity on what actions are needed to support students’ productive struggle? Once teachers are clear about what productive struggle looks like and sounds like in the classroom and have thought carefully about the important roles both students and teachers play in that reasoning, a community develops for this important practice. Let the productive struggle begin!

Toncheff, M., & Kanold, T. (2014). Beyond the common core: A handbook for mathematics in a PLC at work. Bloomington, Indiana: Solution Tree.

Principles to actions: Ensuring mathematical success for all. (2014). Reston, VA: NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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