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Thursday, December 20, 2018

On Productive Struggle

"A lot of scientific evidence suggests that the difference between those who succeed and those who don't is not the brains they were born with, but their approach to life, the messages they receive about their potential, and the opportunities they have to learn."  Jo Boaler, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, Stanford University

My parents were born during the Great Depression and entered their teens during
World War II,  In those early years of their young lives, my mom and dad got a firsthand look at sacrifice, struggle, uncertainty and the harsh realities of loss.  Certainly these early experiences helped shape who they would become and, in turn, influence how they would raise my brother and me.

One such influence comes from something I can still hear my dad say, way back when I was a kid.  I'd be struggling with something, frustrated I couldn't master it and ready to give up.  He'd encourage me to press on, try a different approach, or think about it for a bit and try again the next day.  He'd say, "You can pay now or pay later, but if you pay later it comes with interest."  Somehow, even though I really had no idea what interest was, I got the gist of what he was trying to say and I would persist (with his help, support and encouragement) until I got past whatever barrier had slowed me down in the first place.

All these years later I more fully understand the "pay now or pay later" reference and appreciate how aptly this principle applies to so many aspects of life.  One such application is in regard to what many educators now refer to as "productive struggle."

From a quick review of the research, it appears the term "productive struggle" was initially associated with mathematics instruction and the notion that challenging students with material that is neither too easy or difficult, creates just enough dis-equilibrium to foster deeper learning.  Productive struggle in mathematics puts a heavier emphasis on the process than the outcome, suggesting that when we push ourselves to accomplish something just beyond our reach, we learn and accomplish far more as a result of having made the journey outside our comfort zone.

In my view, productive struggle is a valuable and powerful tool that should and must be applied beyond the world of mathematics.  Productive struggle is the essence of my dad's wise words and acknowledgement that today's challenges, put off until some unknown future time, will most likely become disproportionately more complex, difficult, time consuming and costly.  We can all probably think of many applications where knowledge and skill in using this tool could have a dramatic and lasting impact on outcomes for students and ourselves.

One example of productive struggle that comes immediately to my mind, is in regard to special education.

As a student in special education, then later a special education teacher and administrator, I often wondered if our expectations of students with disabilities were sometimes lower than they should have been.  Though I never doubt anyone's best intentions when it comes to educating children with disabilities, I often wonder if we (and perhaps the system itself) sometimes devote more time, effort and resources toward accommodating disabilities than helping students learn to compensate for them.

Learning to compensate for a disability is hard and time-consuming work, often with little or no short-term reward. It requires parents, teachers and especially students themselves, to experience much productive struggle in the present (i.e. pay now) in exchange for later having the requisite skills to gain maximum independence and lifelong success.  My perspective, after experiencing special education through a variety of lenses and over a lifetime, is that by shielding our students with disabilities from productive struggle in the present, we often force them to encounter more significant challenges later on.  When students with disabilities learn to rely on accommodations rather than their ability to compensate, they miss out on acquiring the skills necessary to compete and thrive in an adult world where accommodations may be lacking or nonexistent.  By setting consistently high expectations now and creating the conditions for productive struggle, we help students with disabilities avoid the "pay later" scenario, whose interest rate many adults with disabilities will ultimately (and tragically) find to be forever unaffordable.

Whether we apply productive struggle to the education of students with disabilities or any other aspect of life, the concept of "pay now or pay later" necessarily involves trading short-term comfort for a far-off and often blurry destination.  Productive struggle is the long game.  It requires patience, persistence and endless trial and error.  It is often messy and sometimes draws criticism from others, who may not understand or care that paying later means paying more.  Productive struggle is a harder road and therefore a path less traveled.  It can be tiring, even punishing, and it offers no shortcuts.

Paying now may be harder in the short term, but as Joe Boehler suggests, it is the path to long-term success. Productive struggle can teach us much about ourselves and our potential.  It can lead us to opportunities that help shape our lives and the lives of those we teach and love.