Like so many buzzwords in education, it’s hard to pin down what people mean by the term “Productive Struggle”. Of the two meanings of Productive Struggle I’ve heard being used most often, the good meaning is uncontroversial, and the bad – and more popular – meaning encourages teachers to abandon principles of effective instruction.
The Good Meaning
The first meaning of Productive Struggle is when it’s used as a synonym for “rigor” or “challenge”. This is the good meaning. Learning new things is often hard – a “struggle”, we could say – and we shouldn’t dumb down the curriculum, or ask for anything less than the best from our students. I recently overheard this first meaning of “Productive Struggle” being used by a teacher who was holding a student back during recess so he could complete his writing assignment:
“It takes him quite long sometimes to get something down on paper. I could just let him do audio recordings on his iPad (like his last teacher did), but he’ll never improve his writing unless he engages in a bit of Productive Struggle.”
Good on her, right? We should maintain high expectations of our students, and address achievement gaps rather than excusing or ignoring them away. The problem is, this is not what most teachers mean by Productive Struggle.
The Bad Meaning
What most teachers mean by Productive Struggle is “assigning unscaffolded tasks and intervening as little as possible.” For example, I once observed a teacher who delivered the curriculum purely through projects and investigations. When students became frustrated during a task, she would say things like, “I think you can figure this out on your own” or “Have you fully analyzed the problem?” When she was confronted with the observation that most of her students seemed lost and dissatisfied with her methods, she appealed to the second definition of Productive Struggle:
“In this day and age, students need to learn through Productive Struggle. I could tell them the answer, but research shows that they’ll never learn it unless they figure it out for themselves. Failure is part of learning.”
But does the research really say that?
Is Productive Struggle Research-Based?
Over the years, I’ve observed several presenters at education conferences claiming that Productive Struggle is a research-based approach to teaching and learning. There are several areas of research, however, that seem to contradict this (ill-defined) hypothesis. For starters, decades of teacher effectiveness research suggest that the teachers with the highest achievement gains break materials down into small pieces, use scaffolds, and obtain a high success rate during independent practice. This is clearly not struggle. Second, the research on Discovery Learning has shown that withholding information and guidance from students harms learning. Third, cognitive load theory has run dozens of experiments that indicate that “struggle” is only beneficial up to the point when the demands of the task begin to overload students’ limited working memories. Its most famous finding, the worked example effect, demonstrates that showing students how to solve problems is superior to having students solve equivalent problems on their own.
While advocates of Productive Struggle are usually unaware of the literature I’ve just mentioned, I suspect they may be drawing, loosely, from the “Productive Failure” research, due to the similar name. Productive Failure researchers have produced some promising findings, but the procedures used in these studies prescribe a warm-up activity followed by explicit instruction – a far cry from the sort of Productive Struggle promoted by fans of the Discovery meaning. We may one day find that engaging in “problem solving-first” prepares students for explicit instruction, but this matter is far from settled; Many of the Productive Failure studies are methodologically weak, and van Harsel et al.’s (2020) review of available studies showed a slight advantage for starting instruction with an example (E,P) compared to starting instruction with a problem (P,E). In an interesting twist, some researchers (e.g., Chen et al., 2019; Ashman et al., 2020) have suggested that problem solving-first might work when the material is relatively simple (i.e., low in element interactivity), while explicit instruction-first may be more effective when the material that is complex (i.e., high in element interactivity). Time will tell.
To add to the confusion, Productive Struggle and Productive Failure are sometimes mixed up with Desirable Difficulties (see here, for example). Desirable Difficulties are four learning techniques; Retrieval Practice, Spaced Practice, Variation, and Interleaving; that have been observed by cognitive scientists in lab and classroom settings, and grouped under a catchy name that sounds a lot like Productive Struggle. The similar names is unfortunate, because Desirable Difficulties has nothing to do with the purported benefits of having students struggle and fail during a project or an investigation. Instead, Desirable Difficulties encourages teachers to elicit hard thinking by: 1) quizzing students regularly, 2) distributing their practice over time, 3) varying the conditions of their practice, and 4) mixing in old practice items with new practice items.
In sum, I’m unaware of a body of experimental research that demonstrates that students learn best when they are left to struggle with material. As the term “Productive Struggle” comes with a lot of baggage and ambiguity, I tend to avoid it, and use “challenge” or “hard thinking” instead. This prevents my words from being interpreted as an invitation to use re-packaged Discovery Learning methods that harm students’ learning.
The Alternative to Struggle? Success.
Do we want our students to struggle? Not really. As Andrew Watson wrote in a recent blog post, most struggle is not productive, and most difficulties are not desirable. Every class has students who do not need struggle to be engineered for them; They struggle all the time to access the curriculum. Instead of designing activities that produce high rates of failure, the best teachers have been found to pitch lessons at a “just right” level to achieve high rates of success. If your teaching doesn’t meet the suggested 80% success threshold, your students might be struggling too much.
Ashman, G., Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2020). Problem-solving or explicit instruction: Which should go first when element interactivity is high? Educational Psychology Review, 32(1), 229–247. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09500-5
Chen, O., Retnowati, E., & Kalyuga, S. (2019). Element interactivity as a factor influencing the effectiveness of worked example–problem solving and problem solving–worked example sequences. British Journal of Educational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12317
van Harsel, M., Hoogerheide, V., Verkoeijen, P., & van Gog, T. (2020). Examples, practice problems, or both? Effects on motivation and learning in shorter and longer sequences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 34(4), 793–812. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3649