Problem Solving with Constructive Struggle

09 July 2015 / 8 comments
I recently attended a 4 day training rooted in the 8 mathematical practices.  Math Solutions (founded by Marilyn Burns) conducted this PD event and it supported what I am currently doing but also pushed me to think about how I can add more "constructive struggle" into my teaching. 

Our Math Solutions trainer recommended the book "Faster Isn't Smarter" by Cathy Seeley.  This book points out that as teachers we sometimes do not ask enough of our students.  We tend to tell them the procedure, tools, or most effective approach to a problem.  But students need to struggle...constructively.  By providing this complexity in our classrooms, we ask students to persevere, analyze, and critically think.

In "Faster Isn't Smarter," Cathy Seeley defines constructive struggling as:
 "Constructive struggling can take place when a teacher decides that one demanding, possibly time-consuming problem will likely provide more learning value than several shorter but more obvious problems.  Constructive struggling involves presenting students with problems that call for more than a superficial application of a rote procedure.  Constructive struggling occurs when an effective teacher knows how to provide guiding questions in a way that stops short of telling students everything they need to know to solve a problem."
(For the full article, please click here.)

When we left the professional development, my teammate and I knew what we needed to do.  Provide this challenge by being more comfortable with the struggle that may occur, by posing less questions but more demanding ones, and by analyzing the story problems we currently use.

For the past two years we have used "Problem Solving with Story Boxes."  This is a free document that includes a year long set of themed story problems.  The kids love it, we love it but we also know that we can add more "constructive struggle" to some of these problems.  Not every problem because we want a balance...but some.  To make them higher level tasks, we need to make them more open ended to allow for multiple answers.  The problems must also allow students to make connections and help them to make sense of mathematics.

So I tried out my new learning.  Here are two examples of what I did with some story problems from one of the units in "Problem Solving with Story Boxes."

My upcoming year will involve a lot of this type of change and reflection.  Does this seem like something you need to add to your classroom or do you have resources that provide this type of struggle already?


  1. I'm an English teacher, but my son had this very type of question in first grade. I'm grateful that 1. he understood and could explain it to me and 2. his teacher pushed him towards this! As a mom, I was very uncomfortable with this formatl. Ethan would say, "Mom, just let me explain it." =D

    1. You are not alone!! I am constantly learning when it comes to math. It has never been a strength for me, which makes me just work extra hard! I hope that I can do the same for my kids and that they will be able to explain their thinking!

  2. Yes, I definitely need to add this into my classroom. I will be happy to glean more from you this coming year.

    1. We will have to learn and share together this year!! I am really looking forward to it.

  3. I like this, many times I feel that I may be helping students too much. It's a balancing act for teachers trying to spend the time we need to get students to think for themselves while trying to keep pace with what the district says we're supposed to be doing. Moving to 3rd grade has been eye opening, many of the students don't seem to have mastered things in I introduced in first grade. Now you have to remember I am teaching science and social studies, but the students were writing something one day and I reminded them to capitalize the proper nouns, I would say at least one third of the students looked at me with a blank stare, they had no clue what I was talking about. I was shocked and then did a mini lesson on proper nouns. OK so I may have gotten completely off subject, but it does make sense to me that maybe things will stick with the students more if they have "struggle" for the answers. Thanks for sharing, I'm looking forward to reading more.

    I'm Not Your Grandpa, I'm Your Teacher

    1. I also look forward to learning more about this topic through the year. I think it will be really interesting to see how they do with the new story problems that I give to them and the new approaches that I may take as problems arise. Thanks so reflecting on this with me! We will have to learn together this year.


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