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Productive Struggle in the Classroom

The concept of productive struggle in childhood education, looked at in a recent 2022 NYT article, has implications particularly for students with ADHD and other forms of neurodiversity.

Productive Struggle in the Classroom

Thriving in "The Learning Pit": Learning Process Is Positive

I just read an incredibly inspiring article in the NYT by Jenny Anderson (4/5/2022) that I think is critical for both educators and parents to read and understand. The premise is that historically we've thought of classroom struggling as "bad" or negative- something to be avoided at all costs. Anderson's perspective is that the exact opposite is in fact the case- it is in the struggles where learning happens, and we should embrace and acknowledge the learning process as opposed to sweeping problems and challenges under the rug. In other words, the learning process is positive if the child is actually learning.

“The answer isn’t taking away challenge, it’s giving more tools to deal with challenge."- Carol Dweck, Stanford Psychology Professor

As a way of emphasizing "learning from the bottom up," teacher James Nottingham coined the idea of the learning pit. He taught in a mining town, where pits were all too well known, and needed a metaphor for overcoming difficult circumstances. He noticed that his students seemed to avoid moving out of their comfort zones, and he looked for a way to encourage them to take risks and try new things. Nottingham emphasized learning from the bottom up, and encouraged students to embrace this belief that we all start at the same point and it takes effort to learn and master new topics and content.

"Hunter also knows what he needs to get out of the pit — hard work, his friends, his teacher — and what it feels like when he climbs up and out on the other side (“excited”)."

The article discusses how although it seems like in a post-pandemic world we should be stepping in as much as possible to make things easier for students, that in doing this we might be doing them a disservice. Instead, educators and students need to learn to feel comfortable being uncomfortable- embracing the process and struggle of learning and not handing students solutions. In fact, some research shows that students actually learn better if they are allowed to struggle for a bit before providing answers, an approach called "productive failure."

"Dr. Kapur emphasized that productive failure works best when certain principles are followed: The problems must be devised to be intuitive, challenging but not impossible, and have multiple solutions; students should work in pairs or small groups; and the class should understand that getting a “right” answer isn’t the goal, and that deeper learning is."

One historical "fix" for students who struggle is to retain them in their grade for a second year. This has real-world implications- it occurs disproportionately in black and brown students and in neurodiverse students. These students fall further and further behind, thus widening the education gap and preventing an even academic playing field.

Instead let's try embracing the idea of the learning pit, learning from the bottom up, encouraging struggles. A common language and emphasis on the process as opposed to the outcome can help post-pandemic students rebound more forcefully from the inconsistent and sub-optimal academic environment they experienced for the past couple of years (particularly for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who didn't have the option of more supportive, close-knit private schools with smaller class sizes, access to high speed internet or top of the line computers, or parents who were readily available to help with coursework and making sure their kids completed homework and stayed on track etc.).

I encourage everyone- parents, educators, students, psychologists to read this article and to start engaging in conversations about how we can leverage this paradigm in our classrooms.


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