Academic News

The Productive Struggle in SMA Math Classrooms

“If you struggle, you fight back. You get stronger. You make sure you understand and then you come back to struggle some more. It’s a vicious, mandatory part of life, but in the end, you come out smarter.” — SMA Algebra 1 student

When your daughter comes home and tells you that she struggled a lot in math class this week, a parent’s natural reaction might be concern or frustration. From a teacher’s perspective, however, I know that her struggle is a sign that things are going well in class. In any realm of teaching, but especially in mathematics, engaging in a productive struggle is essential to learning. Productive struggle is a process in which a student engages with new information, perseveres in making sense of the problem, and continually reflects on their own problem-solving approach in order to gain deeper insight and understanding.

Productive struggle can be messy and it can be time consuming, but in math classes at St. Mary’s Academy, this is exactly the problem-solving environment that we hope to create. In this environment, we are reinforcing ideas that are increasingly prevalent in STEM research (Pasquale 2015).

  1. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn
  2. Being correct is an impetus to help others
  3. Everyone is responsible for each other’s learning

These principles are embedded into SMA math classes and are foundational to the CPM curriculum that we use in our Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and Pre-calculus courses. In the CPM philosophy statement, we identify that, “in a perfect world everyone enjoys a good struggle, realizing that with struggle comes learning as well a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

Struggling to understand is essential, not just for attainment of concepts, but it serves a developmental purpose as well. This fall’s Food for Thought Speaker, Julie Lythcott-Haims, says in her book, How to Raise an Adult that when students don’t struggle, “They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others.”

In order to best prepare our girls to be successful for their future, we have to teach them how to struggle now. In math classes at SMA, we provide a safe environment in which students are expected to make mistakes, try lots of different approaches, and work to analyze, communicate, and problem-solve.

The next time your daughter comes to you explaining how she was struggling in math class, praise her, and ask her to explain what she learned!