The Upside of Struggle

The Upside of Struggle
Dr. Renée Greenfield, Head of School Blog

The first time I heard the phrase “productive struggle” was in graduate school. I was in a math methods course, slogging through some pretty tough concepts. My professor was doing her best to encourage us, reassuring us that floundering, muddling through, and making mistakes were hardly signs of failure. In fact, in these very lurching efforts were the seeds of profound learning. 

Little did I know, more than two decades later, the notion of productive struggle would be foundational to my work, and to the work of all Carroll educators.

It’s foundational for two important reasons. 

First, underlying the concept of productive struggle is a vast reservoir of neuroscience research, demonstrating that, when kids engage in difficult but not impossible tasks, their neural pathways actually change and grow. Their brains get stronger. Advances in brain imaging technology over the last 30 years have made this exciting research possible. But well before the data emerged, this idea of neuroplasticity was—and remains—at the heart of Carroll’s mission. Through thoughtful diagnostic, prescriptive, multisensory teaching practices, we are changing how students with language-based learning differences process information and make progress.

Second, inherent in the very idea of productive struggle is that it’s different for everyone. Every student has their unique threshold—too much struggle and the task becomes discouraging; too little struggle, no gains are made; just the right amount, and motivation, progress, and confidence soar. When we say—“give each child what they most need”—this is exactly what we mean. Relying on cognitive and academic data specific to each and every student, educators identify an appropriate level of difficulty, a “Goldilocks” sweet spot. It’s an intricate dance for our skilled educators. And by centering academic experiences in this just-right zone, student outcomes are vastly improved.

Of course, lots of schools claim to champion productive struggle. Like many smart-sounding concepts, it has become a buzzword in education. But the neat thing is, at Carroll, we actually do it. 

A few examples:

  • Educators routinely explain to students why they’re tackling a task even before they dive in. This framing, and an overall emphasis on the process of learning over the end result, helps students to understand the “why” as well as the big-picture gains so they’re better prepared for the task ahead.
  • Carroll teachers know that generic or lavish praise isn’t helpful. Instead, they give constructive, precise, and genuine feedback, and they understand that different kids need different amounts.
  • Supporting productive struggle in the classroom is, admittedly, exhausting work, for educators  and students. Missteps can happen, like inadvertently assigning a too-difficult text or having to restate directions for clarity. As educators at Carroll, we view missteps as opportunities to model authentic feedback and persistence for our students. They also remind us to reflect on the process of teaching and learning

Years after my professor got me thinking differently about struggle, it’s still tough for some people to shake its negative connotation. I urge us all to think differently. Walk the halls with me at Carroll—where the needs of each and every child are carefully calibrated; where process is valued over the end result, and active, not passive learning is reinforced; where feedback is explicit and genuine so students feel supported and engaged, not disheartened. Here, the positive impact of productive struggle on learning is hard to overlook.

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