August 3, 2014

TMWYK: Productive Struggle

A couple days ago a tweet rolled by on my feed that I wanted to respond to, that is really important to respond to, but was too big for me to begin communicating in tweet sized bits.

But then yesterday I was hanging out with a seventh grader (my soon to be foster placement) and I did some things that supported her productive struggle that connect to the classroom.

We were checking out the shelf of puzzles and games trying to decide what to do when she spotted the Rubiks cube. She'd never seen one before and picked it up. I told her to mix it up and suggested spinning in more than one direction (explicit instruction on how this thing works). She asked if I'd solved it and I confessed that I only knew how to completely solve it by following instructions (acknowledgement that this is a challenging task). This was plenty to pique her interest. Once I saw her eyes switch to focus mode I stepped away, said "I'll let you play" and picked up my yarn. While I watched her puzzle I realized that crocheting is an excellent equivalent to Greg's Ukulele, I could watch her without her feeling the pressure of being watched because I was also doing something. She could talk to me but I didn't feel the need to constantly engage her in conversation because my hands were busy. She did talk while she puzzled; she said "This is hard!" every couple minutes for 15 minutes. Nothing else, and her eyes quickly returned to focus on the puzzle. And this is the hardest part for a teacher - how do you respond? It's tempting to jump in and provide help. But she didn't want help, she was expressing her thought process "My brain is working right now and I'm surprised how much my brain is working while spinning cubes!" I sometimes smiled, sometimes said "Yes." and other times said "Yup! But it looks like you're making progress." (growth mindset is helpful here). After 15 minutes she looked up and said "Wouldn't it be crazy if someone just did [mimed rapid spinning of the parts] and solved it?" To which I responded "There are people who can do that! They've worked really hard and learned how to solve it quickly. Have you ever seen a video of that?" She grabbed her phone and I wondered if seeing someone successfully complete the task would be motivating or frustrating, then I realized there must be "how to" videos online and I didn't want her to ruin the experience by stumbling upon one of those. I told her to search "Rubiks Cube Competition" so that they wouldn't appear in her search. The look of intense focus reappeared as she watched a video. She expressed shock, "15 seconds! It was too fast for me to even see what he did!" She watched a few more, then sat back in awe. I explained that some people could look at the cube, see the positions of all the blocks and then figure out in their head how to solve it, but that they had to practice a lot to get there. This prompted another 15 minutes of playing. At some point I gave her the hint of focusing on just one color to start with (strategy of looking at a simpler case) and she would occasionally share how many blue pieces she had grouped together. After another 15 minutes she put it down and said she was done. I went over and showed her a technique - thinking back I wish I'd asked if she wanted to know before telling (but 30 minutes of restraint was all I could handle!) - I showed her how to move some pieces out of the way to get a block in without messing up the current progress. She was impressed and excited and spent another few minutes trying to replicate the technique before deciding she was really done. And I let her be done.

So how does this apply to my classroom?
I pose a problem and provide a bit of information.
Then I step back and let kids explore.
I'm available so they can ask for help, but not hovering.
I use growth mindset language as much as possible (the focus is the process not the answer).
I value kids ideas and questions.
I provide assistance when they are stuck: if a kid is just struggling (no longer productively) or has quit they need a teacher. The tricky part is deciding exactly what kind of assistance you can provide so the kid can continue working.

The last thing I did, letting her stop, is really hard to do in a classroom. There's a goal for today and a pacing guide and all those outside pressures that make it challenging to let kids proceed at their own pace. One thing my co-teacher and I are planning to do is provide a puzzle table where kids can go if they need a break from the class activity. I also let kids go to the bathroom or get a drink of water whenever they want. Knowing yourself well enough to know when you need to step away and clear your head is an essential skill. In the classroom, I'd ask a kid to re-engage after a short break, but that's also the difference between working on a task carefully chosen for your students and picking up a Rubik's cube!

Wondering what the TMWYK in the title stands for? That would be Talking Math With Your Kids, the awesome idea, blog and book of Christopher Danielson.


  1. I love this!!! I know exactly what you mean about how crocheting (or knitting or ukulele or whatever) is a nice way of giving space but still being present with someone who is timidly stepping forward into productive struggling. This is what Rudolf Dreikurs called "encouraging children's courage" and it is exactly in that same spirit of TMWYK.

    Sounds like a great day!

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)