Embrace Productive Struggle in Math with these 4 Powerful Strategies

Inside: Five ways to help students overcome the productive struggle and increase math engagement.

As a child, I couldn’t wait for math class to start. Math was my thing.

That is, until I got to high school geometry. That’s the first time I had to go through a productive struggle.

I found myself wondering…

What’s the difference between congruent and similar?

How on earth can I solve this proof?

Who is this Pythagoras guy anyway?

I was confused with the math, but I was also confused about why I didn’t understand it. Math always came so easy to me in the past.

On the flip side, some students are faced with the productive struggle early on and give up on math well before high school geometry.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen many examples of both types of students. Some feel math should always be a breeze, and others feel defeated before math class even starts. While we don’t want anyone to reach frustration, it’s important that all students feel challenged and equipped to overcome the challenges.

Productive Struggle

The productive struggle is the zone where students are working slightly above their comfort zone. They are capable of solving the problem, but they need some resources, prompting, or a good pep talk.

This child needs to learn how to handle the productive struggle!
This student needs to learn how to handle the productive struggle.

How students react to the productive struggle can make or break their progress.

There’s a big mindset difference between, “This is too hard!” and “I’m going to try…”

Time for a Mindset Shift

Students have different reasons for having a fixed mindset in math.

  • They don’t think they have a “math brain”.
  • A previous negative experience.
  • Fear of failure
  • Lack of confidence
  • Their first encounter with a challenging concept

I address these issues by working on transforming students to a growth mindset. Once students realize they are are capable mathematicians, their confidence and math engagement soar!

The four strategies below foster a growth mindset in math.

Get ready to hear, “Bring on the math challenges!”

Bonus: If your looking to improve your students’ mindset across the board, make sure to grab your FREE Mindset Mastery Toolkit at the end of this post.

1. Show them real-life mathematicians

Sharing real-life mathematicians teaches students many lessons about growth mindset in math. Below you will find three of my favorite books for modeling positive thinking toward math.

The book descriptions include affiliate links. My students and I agree that each one is engaging, powerful, and an excellent source to start up those math brains!

A great book to promote a love of math

Pedro loved math. He was the absolute best at it.

But everything didn’t come easy. For example, Pedro didn’t learn to butter his bread until age 20.

Pedro grew up to be a man who called the world his home. He had math connections all over the world.

Math Mindset Lesson: “Mathematician + mathematician + mathematician = MORE and BETTER MATH!

Margaret had no problems with math engagement.  Her story is bound to inspire students.

Margaret was never one to give up on a problem. She asked questions from the time she was a young child to the time she helped with space missions for Apollo 8, 9, 10,and 11.

From daddy longlegs to helping NASA put a man on the moon, Margaret was a problem-solver.

Math Mindset Lesson: Be curious about math. Ask questions about how numbers and operations work.

Raye gets her dream job of becoming an engineer.

Raye Montague was told “can’t” at a young age. But she did not let that stop her from becoming an engineer.

From graduating college with honors to designing submarines, there was no stopping Raye’s determination.

Math Mindset Lesson: Be determined! You can solve the problem if you put your mind to it!

2. Two Compliments and a Suggestion

When that one student in the back finally raises his or her hand to share their work, we want to ensure a positive experience.

I implement “two compliments and a suggestion” almost every day. After a student shares their work, they choose two students to give a compliment, and one to give a suggestion.

Some students have trouble with this concept at first. They don’t know what to suggest when the answer is correct, and they struggle to find compliments for incorrect answers. I usually need to model this a few times (see below), but the students catch on quickly.

Suggestions for correct answers

  • Next time, try (different strategy)
  • Try adding (a step they may have missed)
  • Don’t forget to add a label

Compliments for incorrect answers

  • Your work is very organized
  • I like that your tried a numbers line
  • You did a great job on the first step

We need to foster a math community where students are proud and willing to learn and gain confidence together.

This student is showing how a growth mindset can help you build confidence.
This student is glowing with math confidence! Photo by Pressmaster.

3. Differentiate for Success

Differentiation allows for all students to feel confident, successful, and challenged.

Need some suggestions for how to differentiate?

  1. Ask open-ended questions (Instead of 15 + _ = 30, try asking, “How many ways can you think of to get to 30?”)
  2. Have manipulatives and hundreds charts easily accessible.
  3. Make a challenge bin
  4. Provide extensions
  5. Draw/act out word problems.
  6. Partner works
  7. Small groups based on data
  8. “Cheat Sheets”

Equipping students with the right tools prepares them to tackle the productive struggle at any level.

Math manipulative can help students through the productive struggle.
Math manipulatives boost confidence! Photo by Vejaa.

4. Put an End to Boredom

Nothing can put student motivation to a halt more quickly than boredom. A bored student can be your worst nightmare when you are trying to teach a lesson.

In addition to having your higher students be leaders/helpers in math try some of these ways to keep them motivated.

  1. Challenge Bin – Add papers or centers that are one step harder than what your are covering in class. This is a great option for your early finishers who are strong in math.
  2. Challenge Sessions – Offer challenge sessions as time permits. Introduce your students to new topics like negative numbers or decimals. I squeeze these in once or twice a week.
  3. On the fly – Jot some harder versions of what you are doing on students’ assignments. Sometimes, I also write the same type of problems in the child’s planner so they can “show off” at home.

When students trust that you’ll challenge them, they are far more likely to cooperate during lessons. It can make the difference between, “Stop kicking me!” and “I have idea to share.”

We are all Mathematicians!

Fostering a growth mindset helps all your students see themselves as mathematicians.

At some point most students question their ability to tackle a given math problem. Fostering a growth mindset gives them everything they need to tackle the productive struggle.

Keep Growing

Teaching growth mindset strategies made a world of difference in my students’ attitudes towards math as well as other subjects. If you’re ready to empower your students to face the productive struggle head on, make sure to grab my free Growth Mindset Mastery Kit.

Get everything you need to shed those fixed mindsets delivered to your inbox by completing the form below.

  • The Power of Yet – Color and Apply
  • Change those fixed mindsets with two pages of quotes to revise.
  • Mindset sort – Promote awareness of fixed mindset statements.
  • .Label the mindset – Identify and Label what works and what doesn’t.
  • Goal Setting page – Plan and Celebrate!

How do you guide students through the productive struggle? Please leave your favorite strategy in the comments below.

Teaching blogger for elementary teachers

Mary Wingert, licensed educator (K-12 Special Ed. & 1-8 General Ed)

I started teaching in 1993.   I have taught special education, fifth grade, and fourth grade.  I moved to second grade in 2015, and I am still there today.  

I believe in teaching strategies that are effective, differentiated, and engaging. I am looking forward to building a community of teachers who feels the same!  Read more here.