Productively Stuck

August 13, 2013

When I try to describe great teaching, I notice a certain phrase pops out of my mouth again and again.

Productively stuck.

As in, the goal of the teacher is to get her students productively stuck as soon as possible. As in, we want to hook the students with a compelling question and then leave them productively stuck. As in, when a student is productively stuck, we don’t want to tell them the answer, because that robs them of the educational experience.

You could say that being productively stuck is virtually the same thing as learning. Talk to any teacher worth their salt and they’ll tell you how they draw their students in, how they frustrate them, how they force them to grapple with big ideas. It’s a surprising idea because learning connotes something so positive and frustration and stuckness something so negative. And yet, they’re intertwined. Frustration just means you have a need that hasn’t yet been filled; learning is taking in (or creating) a new thing to fill the need.

Which means teachers need to be just the right kind of mean. They have to care enough not to be nice and relieve their students’ suffering (a relief that teaches a terrible lesson: that you can complain and the adult will solve your problems for you). No, the caring teacher lets their students suffer in just the right ways and struggle at just the right level: challenging, but not overwhelming.

I’ve noticed that a lot of folks who write about this topic have different descriptions for it.

  • James Tanton: “Let students flail.”
  • Dan Meyer: “Be less helpful.”
  • Paul Lockhart:
    “Give your students a good problem, let them struggle and get frustrated. See what they come up with. Wait until they are dying for an idea, then give them some technique. But not too much.”

Here’s another coinage from Emily, a teacher we worked with over the last few years: good frustration. I talked to her in the spring, and she shared this story of how starting with a question that her students didn’t have the tools for motivated them to want to learn multiplication and division (skills they would later master). What I love is that she goes seamlessly from talking about teaching math in a way that kids love, to starting your lesson with a question, to getting kids frustrated. She read me her student’s feedback on the class from surveys she had them take, and you know what they said, over and over. They loved the challenge.

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