Building Persistence Through Struggle

By Phil Kitchel posted 06-12-2023 02:20 PM

By Zareen Gul Aga (Rahman)
The author wrote “Pre-service Mathematics Teachers’ Experience with Productive Struggle,” which is published in Volume 87, Issue 2 of the KDP Forum. It is available free in the month of June.
We do our students a disservice by teaching them that the only thing of value in a mathematics classroom is the right answer. This notion promotes the view that there’s only one right way to think, a deeply troubling idea given the state of the world we live in today. Unfortunately, many students only ever experience a narrow view of mathematics that begins and ends inside the last mathematics course they enrolled in. Doing mathematics means going through a process of making mistakes and learning from them. It’s the act of trying out new ideas to tackle the same problem with creativity and perseverance.
When students are encouraged to struggle through problems, they learn to appreciate the process of taking risks, failing, and trying over and over again (Boaler, 2016). Yet struggle is seen as a negative experience, with students commonly asking the teachers to just give them the correct answer or just show them the right procedure. For teachers, too, it’s often easier to demonstrate the mathematical procedures that the students can then practice to master procedural fluency. Having the students engage in cycles of trying, failing, and retrying is often time-consuming, and concerns about curriculum pacing don’t allow teachers this time. Yet it is precisely this struggle that can allow our students to develop problem-solving skills.
Engaging in struggle for the sake of learning perseverance is in itself a valuable experience for our students. We should value the time struggling through difficult problems even when the struggle doesn’t lead to a correct answer (Kapur, 2014). Teachers can provide this experience through balancing the supports they provide and the challenges they allow their students to experience (Michell & Sharpe, 2005). Teachers can enhance or reduce the level of struggle through their pedagogical choices such as asking questions that encourage students to think independently, encouraging the students to persist, acknowledging the struggle itself as an important part of doing mathematics and giving students time to engage with the problem (Warshauer, 2015).
It’s not just the teachers who can normalize struggle as an essential part of learning and growth. Instead, all stakeholders in the education realm must work together to redefine struggle, failing, trying again as an integral part of doing mathematics. Teachers can communicate the value of struggle to the students by selecting tasks and using pedagogical practices that support students in struggling productively. Parents can celebrate their students’ successful and unsuccessful attempts when solving a problem, school administration and policy makers can work towards addressing the curricular needs to include the time needed to struggle through challenging concepts. Together, these efforts can allow the students to see struggle as an important part of doing mathematics.
Zareen Gul Aga (Rahman) is an assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, United States. Zareen is interested in improving mathematics teaching and learning and is currently focused on critical mathematics education. Her work includes developing supports for in-service and pre-service mathematics teachers to make mathematics accessible for all.
Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kapur, M. (2014). Productive failure in learning math. Cognitive Science, 38(5), 1008-1022.
Michell, M., & Sharpe, T. (2005). Collective instructional scaffolding in English as a Second Language classrooms. Prospect, 20(1), 31–58.
Warshauer, H. K. (2015a). Strategies to support productive struggle. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 20(7), 390-393.
1 comment



06-13-2023 11:02 AM

I absolutely love your post. We have challenges but NOT failures. I tell my students if they fall, fall forward.

Continued blessings 

Marilyn Doland