BY CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Productive struggle, a term that has gained popularity over the last decade, is found in instruction that “stretches students’ thinking and performance just beyond the level they can do on their own — the zone of proximal development.”
Finding and teaching to each of our students’ sweet spots is no easy feat. As teachers, we are often guilty of over-scaffolding, or rescuing our students out of fear or our desire to avoid student discomfort. Alternatively, we sometimes push students too far by introducing a task that is well beyond their level, without also providing the necessary tools or assistance they need to meet the challenge. In order to support students in productive struggle, we need to be patient, persistent, and committed in gathering and using data in our instruction. This can include quantitative data such as reading levels and test scores, or perhaps more importantly, student actions and behaviors — what we know as qualitative data.
How can we gather qualitative data about our students in order to support them in finding a meaningful, productive level of struggle in their learning?
Identifying zones of struggle
Before we can locate promising practices for our instruction, we first need to identify look fors and listen fors that can help us determine if and when students are being pushed too far, or are not being pushed enough.
When students are not being challenged enough or instruction is below their level, we consider this a level of no struggle. At the other end of the spectrum is destructive struggle, in which tasks are too challenging for particular students, or are significantly above their level. A zone of productive struggle lies between the two.
Let’s identify the look fors and listen fors for each of these zones:
When students are in a no struggle zone, it might look like and sound like:
When it comes to the destructive struggle zone, we might observe students who:
In contrast, when students are in a zone of productive struggle, we are likely to see them:
Observing student behavior online
Given that so much instruction is happening remotely, and we may not be able to observe the same behaviors from our students in a remote setting, we can also identify look fors and listen fors when online teaching and learning is taking place.
In a no struggle zone, we might observe online students who are:
When students are in a place of destructive struggle online, they might:
In contrast, productive struggle might look and sound like:
Determining students’ current zones of struggle is a helpful starting point for potential shifts in your instruction. Different students at different times might exhibit these behaviors, and this can inform your responses and course of action. By leaning on these look fors and listen fors, we can more effectively and confidently determine if, when, and how many scaffolds need to be introduced so that students are advancing their skills.
In addition to locating student behaviors and communication that can surface as they’re working on tasks, we can also lean on preemptive planning, which will support us in predicting and creating opportunities for productive struggle in our classrooms. Preemptive planning encourages thoughtful consideration and analysis of each task we’re offering students — whether it’s a culminating task of a unit or a task for a particular lesson. This process involves asking questions such as:
These questions can inform your instructional design as you work to meet the individual needs of students. Your assessment of students’ areas of struggle can inform where and how you’ll need to scaffold your instruction, and the areas of strength can inform where and how you introduce extensions or opportunities for deeper learning.
Similar to identifying and responding to look fors and listen fors, preemptive planning is a meaningful form of data collection that can help you predict or anticipate student performance and ultimately use these predictions to inspire, inform, and cater your planning and instruction to your students.
There is no denying the challenges involved in meeting students where they are, especially when teaching large numbers of students — many of whom are on vastly different levels — or teaching at a distance. But by engaging in strategic planning based on data and evidence, we can create opportunities for our students to challenge themselves, recognize that they can do hard things, and make progress in their learning.