This past Friday, I gave an introductory presentation on the educational ramifications of new brain and psychological research, specifically, Carol Dweck’s Mindset. What came out of the discussion during the session, was that our school already does a fairly good job of inherently implementing most of the underlying themes in Dweck’s research.
- We write narrative progress reports and our grading system is qualitative not quantitative.
- We already “teach at the speed of learning.“
- We try to make our classrooms safe spaces where students feel comfortable to express themselves and take risks.
- We even decided to add perseverance to our school-wide praise system highlighting not only growth mindset, but also the mathematical practices!
What we realized we still needed to work on as a school, was allowing students to struggle productively. Robert Kaplinsky recently posted his ignite talk from the Northwest Mathematics Conference. Kaplinsky gives a very accessible account of the differences between productive struggle and what he calls, “unproductive struggle.” In our school, “unproductive struggle” is frustration.
Frustration is a four letter word in special education classes. Students get supports in class in order to decrease their frustration. This is important because if a student with a disability (or without, really) is frustrated they may shut down, act out, or flee and this can sometimes lead to anger. None of these is a particularly good outcome in any circumstance. So limiting frustration is usually at the top of a special educator’s classroom management to do list.
However, we do not want to limit productive struggle for students with disabilities.
This is important for many reasons. Some are the same as those laid out by Kaplinsky, for instance the incremental gains made by students who are given the opportunity to persevere through problem solving. Other reasons relate to advocating for equity for students with disabilities. If neurotypical students are given the opportunity to productively struggle and students with disabilities are not because of the fear of frustration, are we actually supporting students with disabilities or over-scaffolding to their detriment?
Another important reason to advocate for students with disabilities to productively struggle is their parents. Being a parent of a student with a disability is hard work. So limiting frustration is also at the top of a parent’s to do list. Conversely, fostering and nurturing academic confidence in their students is also at the top of a parent’s to do list. This can lead to praise that resembles that of a fixed mindset, “You’re so good at math!”
I recently got an email from a parent asking if her son was having a hard time in my class. I was surprised, because he hadn’t stood out as a student who was frustrated by the work we are doing. I explained to my student’s mother that the problems we were giving in class were to encourage perseverance and productive struggle, not frustration. Once “productive struggle” was introduced (via Robert’s video) to my student’s mother, she had a much easier time understanding her son’s experience in my class and was better able to reinforce these concepts at home.
What I need from you: How do you differentiate productive struggle from frustration with your students, parents, and colleagues?