Productive Struggle

Why did you decide to undertake this project? What was it designed to achieve?

“As educators, we want our students to feel successful. Sometimes, this means that we take control of the lesson and do what we can to make content easy for our students.” (Guido. J (2016)1. However, the question that this leads to is, ‘is this getting the best out of our students?’ Productive struggle could be a way to help students continue to be successful but in a more meaningful and productive way.

Productive struggle is a technique used to help build student resilience and success by removing over scaffolding and replacing it with well-planned strategies. These strategies force the students to struggle yet succeed. Hebert, J. & Grouws, D. (2007)2 describe productive struggle as “effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching—that builds useful, lasting understanding and skill.” The importance of productive struggle is explained in the book ‘how to support struggling students’3 where it is noted that “students grapple with the issues and are able to come up with a solution themselves, developing persistence and resilience in pursuing and attaining the learning goal or understanding.”

During my research it was also clear that creating a productive struggle culture in the classroom is just as important as the challenging tasks themselves. If students did not understand why they were being made to struggle the outcomes would not be as effective. Speigal A (2012)4 suggests Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.” I decided to ask students their thoughts on current challenge in the classroom and how they feel about it (see Figure 1). It is interesting to see how challenging work changes through the Key Stages. The first graph shows 78% of students find work challenging at KS5, the least of all the Key Stages. This suggests that we do scaffold too much at KS5, perhaps to enable maximum success.

To go along with this, student’s perception on struggle also changes through the Key Stages, with 31% of KS5 students feeling not very intelligent whereas KS3 students more determined to find the answer. This suggests that within our school, the culture of productive struggle is not yet embedded and they do not see being challenged as a positive feature of lesson. This is also supported by the fact that over 50% of pupils only found challenging activities ‘somewhat helpful’.

Figure 1 – student perception on challenging work

This research was of interest to our school in addition to our 2017 teaching and learning review where it was seen that ‘over scaffolding’ is something that is seen across many lessons. Students were being guided very heavily through work rather than being given opportunities to explore and problem solve individually or in groups. Therefore, it was interesting to look at ways to empower the students in their learning and allow them to struggle productively. It also supports the continue phase of the mastery model where students work through tasks that deepen their understanding after having been briefly introduced to a new topic. During this phase, students can be given opportunities to struggle on new concepts and come up with solutions independently, which in turn helps to build resilience. As a result, the two main aims of the project were:

  1. To explore how to create a ‘struggle culture’ in the classroom where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities.
  2. To experiment and embed productive struggle strategies in the classroom.


What impact has your project had on learning and teaching or outcomes in the school?

Aim 1: ‘To explore how to create a ‘struggle culture’ in the classroom where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities.

We looked at this in 3 ways:

  • Explain why struggling is important
  • Recognise and celebrate mistakes
  • Praise those who struggle

1) Explain why struggling is important

Stiles J (2017)5 states that For struggle to be productive, students must have a classroom environment where they feel safe and supported in experimenting with different problem-solving strategies.’

I tried out a strategy mentioned in this report whereby students are asked to answer a series of questions based around a hobby that they have outside of school. The questions are below:

  • What was it like the first time you played?
  • Were you good right away or did you need to practise?
  • When you fail, do you give up, never try again?
  • When you fail, do you keep doing the same thing repeatedly or do you try a different strategy?
  • Do you ask friends and siblings for help and learn from their strategies?
  • How does it feel when you finally win / play that piece of music / learn something new?

Students gave interesting answers such as ‘at first I wasn’t very good but with practise I got better’, ‘I tried different ways to practise’, ‘It felt good when I scored that goal’. We then likened this to school work and discussed the idea that they can tackle it in the same way as they do their hobbies. Students then watched a video, found at the link below.

Although rather farfetched, it was fun to watch and enabled the students to link the struggles of Ormie the Pig to their own school work, with Ormie the pig becoming a classroom mascot when work gets tough.

Using these strategies, students were able to relate struggle and challenge in their personal time to a school space and see that they can tackle this challenge in the same way and get the same successful results.

  1. Recognise and celebrate mistakes.

The emphasis of this strategy is to make sure students understand that making mistakes is a part of learning and that these can be used to help them more forwards and be successful.

The Science department tried an activity where students were encouraged to actively cross out work and try again after some further input. (see Figure 2)

Figure 2 – celebrating and recognising mistakes in Science

Students were also asked to work on A4 pieces of paper to try and alleviate any worries a number of students have about making mistakes in their books. Once the learning aim had been achieved, students were then able to complete work in their book that they felt confident with.

Maths celebrate and recognise mistakes by sharing work that is not perfect. Work that shows students have made mistakes and the corrections are used to show that there are multiple ways to a solution. It also allows for praise and encouragement to those who do struggle, in turn building confidence. (see Figure 3)

Figure 3 – Sharing work that is not perfect

3)  Praise those who struggle

This can be as simple as making struggle a focus of praise or recognition board (see Figure 4)

In English, prasing struggle was made a habitual part of everyday practise and the following aspects were reiterated to the students often.

Figure 4 – Praise those who struggle

  • If you are getting frustrated it means you care about your learning
  • If you are being resilient it means you are determined to find the answer
  • If you are feeling daunted by the task it means you are willing to take risks
  • If you are honest this is a good thing as you can communicate your needs to maximise learning
  • If you work to enjoy the task, then it will sharpen your intelligence and skills.

Aim 2: To experiment and embed struggle time activities into the classroom.

From the research it was seen that there are 3 stages to creating productive struggle

  • Set up of the task
  • The task itself
  • Summarise and reflection


  1. Set up of the task

 Some struggle time activities may require students to be reminded of the necessary language, concepts or forms of representation to allow them to start.

The French Department trialled this well where, over a series of lessons, students were prepared for the productive struggle activity that was to be completed.

The first lesson involved breaking down strategies to succeed in an exam style question. Students were then asked to work out the meaning of the questions and highlight where the answers were.


In lesson 2 students looked at creating the correct answers using the sentence starters that were provided.

A few lessons later the struggle time activity was introduced and using previous set up task’s students were able to complete this with confidence.


Another strategy is to use prompting questions to help the students start the task. (See Figure 6)

Figure 6 – setting up the task in science.

By highlighting keywords in the text and prompting students to think about what has been done previously they were able to start the task. Once started they found it easier to achieve.

  1. The task itself

The struggle task needs to promote rich, student centred thinking and it is important here that the teacher provides adequate prompts, collaboration time and question students to facilitate learning.

In a Science lesson, students were given enabling prompts as they moved through a productive struggle task, (see Figure 7). This task was something the students have never seen before, but they did have some prior knowledge on some of the keywords of the topic. As the task moved forwards students were also encouraged to cross out work and start again if they needed to – further fostering the productive struggle culture in the classroom. Student results from this struggle time activity show that whilst mistakes were made and crossed out, they were able to reach the desired learning goal with deeper understanding. (see Figure 8)

Figure 7 – enable promts during a productive struggle science lesson

Figure 8 – student work as a result of the enabling prompts.

During this time students were also specifically praised for their commitment and determination throughout the struggle time activity. This was a completely different way of teaching this topic (usually modelled and then students are given examples to complete themselves) and actually demonstrated how much more capable the students were at being able to decipher learning for themselves. It also helped build confidence in Chemistry which has manifested itself other lessons.

Another technique is partner collaboration, where students are encouraged to talk about how they reached their final solutions, (see Figure 9). This helps students to verbalise their struggle but also see that there are multiple ways to get to their final solution and all of these ways are correct (see Figure 10).

Figure 9 – partner collaboration



Figure 10 – student work after collaboration time 

A final strategy is to give students a task that they have never seen before and ask them to ‘have a go’. This allows the students to see what they already know and where they can get going with out any help. DT and PE both tried this, giving varying help as the task progressed.

DT provided the students with a brief and asked student to ‘have a go’. Students were not given any answers and if they asked a question were only answered with another question. The outcome of this was that students all created something very different from the original brief provided, so it gave them more freedom in their work. (see Figure 11)

Figure 11 – Students ‘have a go’ in DT.

PE also used this model and adapted it slightly to a whole, part, whole approach. (see Figure 12)

  • Whole: Exposing students to the concept or topic and let them have a go.
  • Part: Break the learning down and focus on a specific aspect.
  • Whole: Return to the original concept and impose additional constraints.

Students were asked to try a skill in basketball. They were then encouraged to discuss the challenges they faced by completing some intermediate tasks. The lesson finished with returning to the original skill and applying the learning outcomes in greater depth.

Figure 12 – ‘have a go’ in PE.

This lesson highlighted the importance of prompts and collaboration time within a productive struggle activity to allow for student success.

  1. Summarise and reflect

It is important that students are given the opportunity to reflect on the productive struggle that they have gone through to recognise their achievements and consider possible new strategies that they did not explore. This could be in the form of sharing ideas with their partner and then reattempting the task (see Figure 13), or it could be giving the students time to write down their thoughts regarding how they performed through the struggle activity, (see Figure 14)

Figure 13 – sharing ideas with partners as reflection

Figure 14 – reflecting on the productive struggle activity

What do you think are the next steps in order to develop this aspect of learning and teaching in the school?

In order to continue to develop this area, teachers need to continually foster a struggle culture in the classroom. This takes time but can greatly increase the learning of the students. Mistakes need to be praised and learning opportunities focused on them. This encourages and promotes making mistakes as positive experiences. Students need to be given time to try new activities; furthermore, questions should not be answered or scaffolding offered too soon. Finally, students need to be allowed talking time to discuss their solutions and how to tackle the problems most effectively.

In a nutshell – if you are going to do 5 things…

  • Foster a struggle time culture in the classroom
  • Give supporting information when setting up a struggle task
  • Provide challenge or supporting prompts during the struggle task
  • Summarise the learning that has taken place
  • Encourage students to reflect by sharing different approaches


1 Guido. J (2016) Setting the Stage for Productive Struggle in Your Classroom

2 Hebert, J. & Grouws, D. (2007) The Effects of Classroom Mathematics Teaching on Students’ Learning

3 Jackson, R., & Lambert, C. (2010) How to Support Struggling Students

4 Spiegel. A (2012) Struggle for smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning.

5 Stiles. J (2017) Developing a Productive Struggle Mindset,


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