What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Think about it for a minute. You are facing a new challenge – whether it be learning to fix a burst pipe, tackling a new hobby, or just struggling to figure something out. What do you do?

I’ve asked hundreds of people this question and the first thing they often say is, “I Google it.” (Then I joke about the times before the internet when we needed to spend time looking through the Encyclopedia Britannica to find our answers.)

In education, a big challenge is how to teach students what do to do when they don’t know what to do. What systems are needed for productive struggle to take place in classrooms and schools? How do students learn to struggle so they can eventually problem solve for themselves?

Research in neuroscience tells us our brains grow new neuro-pathways when we are at the edge of challenge. It’s often called “The Goldilocks Principle” of learning – it can’t be too easy or too hard, it needs to be just right. 

The term “productive struggle” is used a lot in education, but what does that really mean for teaching and learning?

Understanding productive struggle

James Nottingham has a wonderful visual on his website called the “learning pit.” It depicts what happens to our brains when we are learning something new and are struggling, and then how we work our way through the struggle to come out on the other side of the learning. 

Unfortunately, many students (and teachers) find themselves stuck in the pit of struggle. To get out of the pit, it’s important to intentionally build resiliency skills.

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Danielle Sullivan, National Director of Content and Implementation, Curriculum Associates

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