Room to Grow - a Math Podcast

Helping Students Struggle Productively

July 06, 2021 Room to Grow Math Season 1 Episode 5
Room to Grow - a Math Podcast
Helping Students Struggle Productively
Show Notes

Productive Struggle is a key component of students’ mathematical learning. But struggle can shift from “productive” to “unproductive” at different rates and for different reasons for different students (and teachers!). Ensuring that students engage in productive struggle is complex, nuanced, and dependent on a healthy classroom culture and strong teacher-student relationships. 

In this episode, Curtis and Joanie explore what productive struggle looks like and how to recognize when a student’s struggle is heading for an unproductive state. They consider the characteristics of tasks and activities that lend themselves to supporting productive struggle, including the “just right” level of difficulty, and that students have enough familiarity with the topic that they believe they can be successful with the task.

Next, our hosts unpack the idea of the “Learning Pit” from James Nottingham, and how effective and well-timed questions from the teacher can help students who are stuck in the pit to find the proverbial rope they can use to pull themselves out and find success. 

Finally, Joanie shares a challenging geometric puzzle and the conversation she had with Curtis where he supported her productive struggle in finding the solution, tying together the ideas from this episode into an authentic situation from the hosts’ own lives.

Explore more about the Learning Pit and other ideas from the Challenging Learning Group here:  

Consider extending your learning about productive struggle with these resources from NCTM (membership required for access):

  • Productive Struggle in Action (access at
  • By way of introduction: Productive Struggle (Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, Vol. 23, No. 4, January/February 2018).

Share your feedback, comments, and suggestions for future episode topics by emailing Be sure to connect with your hosts on Twitter and Instagram: @JoanieFun and @cbmathguy.