Beyond the right answer

How ‘Productive Struggle’ Builds Our Understanding

By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center 

Somehow we recognize it immediately, the scene in this lesson about interior angles of a polygon, videotaped in an eighth-grade classroom somewhere in the United States.

Over the course of a 49-minute period, the teacher passes out papers, calls out directions from the board, asks questions and repeats the answers when correct, offers tips for memorizing geometric rules, and summarizes key points that will appear on a quiz coming up. The students seek right answers by asking the teacher for help.

“I’ll answer all questions tomorrow on angles,” the teacher says as the class comes to its end with a scattering of notifications. “I will make sure you understand ’em.”

Though the video was made more than 20 years ago — by researchers in the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) — every minute still feels familiar to most people schooled in the United States.

Why? It’s because our customs and traditions place high value on right answers, not on the struggle to understand.

“U.S. teachers don’t like confusion,” said Dr. Jim Stigler, a key researcher in the 1995 TIMSS study as well as its follow-up study in 1999. “They wait 30 seconds and then they give a hint.”

In contrast, videos of Japanese classrooms showed teachers setting tasks requiring students to grapple with uncertainty. For example, one gave them a diagram of two plots of land divided by an crooked boundary. Without changing the area of their separate plots, the students had to straighten the boundary.

“Watch Japanese kids agonizing over how to solve those problems,” Stigler told a group of educators. “Most American teachers think that’s unfair, to give someone a problem to solve that you didn’t teach them how to solve.”

But here’s the paradox: The more we struggle with new information, the more chance that we will recall and apply it later.

TIMSS research showed that higher achievement levels resulted when students worked through possible approaches to a problem, without the teacher providing a map to the solution.

How Uncertainty Leads to Learning

Teaching is a “cultural activity,” the TIMSS researchers concluded. We absorb its daily routines through our experiences as K–12 students — and by the time we lead our own classrooms, they guide our actions without our even realizing it. In United States classrooms, for example, our routines generally seek and reward “right answers.”

Yet from country to country, such cultural traditions vary. (For evidence, just browse through 54 full-length classroom videos and transcripts that the TIMSS researchers have made freely available to the public.)

The Japanese math class mentioned earlier began with the teacher posing the problem of irregular plots of land. Students worked on their own for about 15 minutes, and then they sought out peers to help build on their ideas.

“As they’re working,” Stigler pointed out, “each time the teacher sees a unique solution to the problem, he has them put their solution up on the board.” At the end of the lesson, with the board covered with students’ ideas, the teacher summarized each different method. That done, he posed another problem—related to the first, but a little bit harder. Instead of explaining, he again let students make their own connections.

Situations like this, in which students grapple with uncertainty, actually heighten the learning process, said cognitive scientist Andrea Chiba, who co-directs the NSF Science of Learning Center at the University of California in San Diego. For example, in the eighth-grade hydroponics project featured in our last article, Dr. Chiba noted that the teacher’s minimal knowledge of that topic lent energy to the students’ own research.

Building Capacity for Productive Struggle

Teachers and students alike often feel uncomfortable with the struggles of not knowing. Most U.S. students have grown up with assessments on which they must quickly deliver the right answers. And for teachers, it takes considerable self-awareness to manage the urge to “fix” things, by offering hints or procedural answers when a learner struggles.

As they take a broader perspective on frustration, however, both teachers and students can develop tolerance for what some call “the zone of productive discomfort” — and come to see its value.

That happens as teachers work with colleagues, mentors, or instructional coaches, establishing a culture of ongoing productive struggle in their own practice. (For an example of how that unfolds in a professional learning community, see these “Teaching as a Team Sport” videos of teachers in a Bronx high school.)

In the classroom, explicit protocols for collaborative groups provide safe ways for students to raise ideas and express their reasoning, even when they are not sure of a solution. Considerable research shows the benefits to their learning. In one study, when a student generated the first idea and a small group of peers followed up, more ideas were produced than in situations in which the first idea came from a teacher.

Along the way, students are developing what we call “agency” — the satisfying power to make our own decisions and choices, take meaningful action, and see the results in our own development and learning.

Valuing Struggle in Every Sphere

The momentum for emphasizing productive struggle began with studies of math and science classrooms. But that same approach, it turned out, worked in other subject areas, such as English language arts or social studies. In our recent article on perspective-taking , for example, high school students and their teachers spoke of creating “a safe place” for differing views as they made meaning of complex texts and events. (Their voices narrate this 2-minute video, “Making Argument Safe.”)

No matter what challenges confront us and our students, shifting our sights away from “one right answer” can push us to think more flexibly. Not just in school but in every aspect of our lives, productive struggle deepens and strengthens the way that we think.

Good teachers welcome their own productive struggles as part of their professional lives. Just as they do with students, they set their own problems of pedagogy that stretch their own thinking.

In your own context, what is a challenge of practice that you face right now? How might you reframe that — so you are free to try things, to see from different perspectives, and to experience how new answers emerge as you welcome the struggle that comes with productive inquiry?

Through Others’ Eyes

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