How Learning Happens at the Point of Challenge

In the book Making Thinking Visible, researchers and authors Karin Morrison, Mark Church, and Ron Ritchhart write, “Learning happens at the point of challenge.” When we think about what is occurring in the highest performing classrooms, we can come to a better understanding of how learning happens at the point of challenge.

First, according to Karin Morrison and her team, we have to give our students the tools and resources to help make their thinking visible, so that we can identify the type of learning that’s really going on. Instead of evaluating whether our students meet the narrow expectations of knowing one right answer, we can challenge all students to develop a deeper understanding of science phenomena, build connections to what they know, challenge their belief in how things work, and extend their reasoning to build new knowledge – by promoting productive struggle.

Rewarding Struggle in the Classroom

A major challenge to building an environment where all students are learning at the point of challenge is the idea that struggle is bad. Instead, we should be normalizing and rewarding the struggle that comes with cognitive rigor. Struggle is powerful. Let’s compare academic struggle to thinking about marathon runners – and how they challenge themselves when preparing for a race. Instead of thinking about struggle as something to protect students from, we can embrace productive struggle in the classroom just like we do for athletes, musicians, and innovators. 

When learning isn't about getting the one answer students think we’re looking for, it can become about developing a deeper understanding of phenomena in the world around them. It can be about challenging the beliefs students hold about how things work by testing them and prototyping them. It can be about making connections between what students know and what they learn about real world phenomena. This type of learning is challenging, and to do the work required, students have to buy in. That’s where embracing struggle by giving students the time and space to think, be creative, and make mistakes comes in.

When students own their own intellectual journey, by asking and answering their own questions, and connecting the dots using reasoning and evidence, that’s the cognitive rigor happening in high performing classrooms. 

Productive Struggle in the Study of Science

For students to buy in and take the lead in their own learning, we have to create a safe space for struggle where they understand that they will be supported. Giving students the opportunity to struggle productively in the classroom helps them understand that cognitive rigor is what gives learning its value – it's when things become exciting and interesting. That’s what motivates scientists and engineers to solve big problems. 

There are a lot of ways we can support students in product struggle. One way is by helping them reflect on a time they were curious about figuring something out. How did that make them feel? Another way is to visualize our thinking and to create a common language like scientific process and engineering design process where we can talk about our struggle. It’s okay not to have the answers. It’s even okay to get frustrated. How do we think scientists and engineers feel when they start out on a new project and get stuck? How do we think they feel when they reach a bigger unexpected challenge or experience a setback. What do we think they do next?

An impactful way to interact with students about struggle is to share our own. Everyone struggles. When we share personal experiences with our students, teachers can help destigmatize academic struggle. It is important that every student understands struggle does not mean failure or inadequacy. We can clarify that there are many different entry points to reaching understanding about a topic and struggle is a normal part of developing an understanding. Not everyone is expected to learn at the same rate or in the same ways in this classroom. It’s okay to go back and rethink. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to ask another group what they are doing and why. We can help students understand that they don’t have to struggle alone and that they have the ability and tools to progress.

Hands-On Investigation in the Classroom

One way to teach students that they don't have to struggle alone is by working in teams. Hands-on investigations and engineering prototypes are integral ways to engage students in struggle within set parameters of phenomena. It showcases just how important learning from our mistakes can be. Often, there are an equal number of things that do not work well as there are successes in an engineering prototype challenge. This showcases that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, different materials and processes we can use, and different ways to support our peers as we work together. 

Productive struggle during hands-on investigation is about getting into the context of the phenomena. This can be frustrating, especially if what students thought was going to happen doesn’t. But if they step back, they can think about what they learned from the result. If they have the time to go back and revise, re-think, and re-test, students can figure out what went wrong and how that can help get to what might go right. When students are working actively in teams, teachers have more time to understand their student’s thinking and skills, identify their frustrations and provide support. This provides students an opportunity to develop the tools they need to respond positively to setbacks, work through struggle, and learn how academic rigor can pay off. 

One question teachers have about this type of in-depth learning through challenges is, ‘How do I grade it?’ When we think about grading students on growth instead of having “the one right answer”, we can look at where they came to us and how far they’ve come. How are they incorporating the tools, strategies, and skills that they're developing to show their learning? How much understanding do they show? For example, if there were one right answer for a hands-on investigation it wouln;t be an investigation, students can just go to their neighbor and ask them what the answer is. But, when their teacher is looking for growth and for an understanding of the phenomenon, the student has to reason and extend their reasoning and make their thinking visible. To do that, they might ask their neighbor instead, “Why did you do that? Why did you change that?” 

Unproductive Struggle in the Classroom

Students who are working together to answer complex questions and build new knowledge without saying “I give up” when things get tough – that's a productive struggle in the classroom. Unproductive struggle occurs when there is a lack of tools available to students, when a task is very one-sided, or when there's one answer or it's been intentionally hidden – so whoever turns over the rock first gets the answer. These can result in an unproductive struggle.

An example of unproductive struggle is giving students a challenge that requires some kind of specialty knowledge that they are unlikely to have. For example, studying ocean currents and assuming everyone has been swimming in an ocean could set up a student for unproductive struggle. When we ask students to make a personal leap based on specific knowledge or experience they may not have, we’re not setting them up for success. If we’re taking students way outside the box in a way that there's no possible pathway forward for them, that is an unproductive struggle. 

When the tasks and phenomena that we've chosen to investigate are appropriate, there should be a lot of pathways and opportunities for excitement, a lot of connections, and a lot of ideas going around the classroom. Despite the challenges students must overcome, learning with next generation expectations means they are given agency to shape and discover a solution and this opportunity is motivating. They’re learning to love the challenge – which is great, because all of the most important things in life are often challenging.

Struggle can also be unproductive if there is no formative assessment built into the classroom routine. When the teacher is not checking in to give the clarification and reflective support needed, we can assume learning is happening and miss things that result in an unproductive challenge. When we do use formative assessment checkpoints, teachers can help reduce those frustrations by asking questions and identifying if something is feeling overwhelming, offer tools, and help students cope with struggle. Short and focused formative assessments, particularly through checkpoints where students and teachers interact, can help spare students from struggling unproductively for long.

Thinking Tools That Promote Deeper Learning

To begin building a learning environment where students struggle and learn at the point of that challenge, we can stop asking questions that we have the answer to. Instead of thinking about teaching in the form of knowledge transfer, we can think about it as a partnership where we’re learning from one another. When we teach students how to make their thinking visible, we can begin learning about our students, learning about their thinking, understanding where they are, catching misconceptions in the moment, and learning from their experiences. 

One way to start this process is by implementing concept mapping. This thinking tool provides students a word splash of big ideas on a sheet of paper in no specific order. Then we challenge them to make connections, with no set expectations. Some students may make one connection and some students may make far more. It’s fun to see what they are thinking about and hear the connections they make based on their different lived experiences. This teaches us as teachers to challenge our own expectations of our students and to respect their thinking and the experiences they bring to the classroom. 

Concept mapping helps students build confidence as they learn how to take risks in a safe environment and understand that their experience can bring a lot to our collective understanding. These students are beginning to challenge themselves to think deeper and make even more connections, because we’re all active participants in the classroom, instead of looking to one person to provide all the answers. 

Authentic Questions That Promote Struggle

When we ask students mostly review and procedural questions – what did they do, what did they hear – we’re not providing the authentic space for productive struggle to occur. Instead, generative, constructive, and facilitative questions are the ones we can use to really interact with student’s thinking, to challenge them to push for deeper learning, and to start thinking about their own thinking. These are the essential questions and the ones we don’t have answers to. For example: 

  • What do you think of when you think of gravity?
  • Who in your life would be most impacted by global warming
  • How could overpopulation change life in our community?

When we ask authentic questions like these, we learn that our students think a lot about a lot of different things! They can surprise us with the connections they make. We can learn new things from our students and together, we can build an authentic learning environment. Students will continue to grow into the space that we provide for them. Instead of giving them a specific sized hole, we can ask authentic questions where learning happens at the point of challenge. 

Making Connections and Coming to a Consensus

When students have the opportunity to learn science by figuring out real-life phenomena, we can challenge them with specific phenomena, like the water cycle. Instead of memorizing the water cycle, which is what it is, we can challenge students to make their own personal connections to it, share their experiences with it, and even disagree about it with one another. The hands-on experimentation and prototyping in an opportunity to unpack the phenomena and test our ideas about it.

When we use real-world phenomena to challenge our students to think deeper and make connections, within a safe space for learning and sharing, we can get them to challenge their own beliefs in a productive way. Hands-on investigation provides the opportunity for students to search for evidence about things that they don’t understand, to figure out if things work the way they think they do, and to develop a deeper understanding of the world around them by accessing facts and performing reasoning in context.   

When we debrief together as a class, teachers we can help our students come to a consensus around what the truth is. We can all share what we’ve learned, what we’ve experienced, and what we now understand within the context of real-world phenomena.

What We Can Mistake for Learning and Challenge

What is learning at the point of challenge – not? What types of things can be mistaken for struggle? Some of the common assessment tools used in traditional teaching methods can cause this mistake, including asking questions that are looking for one expected answer. When a student knows the right answer, we can be mistaken in thinking that they also understand the why behind it if we don’t ask them to visualize their thinking. 

Another example of mistaken learning can happen when we only assess whether students have completed the assignment. This metric, used to identify whether a student met the expectation of the task, does not truly measure what they learned or the true value of the task. When we check off a box at the end of the task without asking students to make their thinking visible, we’re not assessing the true scope and value of their learning. 

When we’re challenging students and allowing space for struggle with hands-on learning, there's a lot of different ways that a prototype can be built, planned, and looked at. There are many different ways that a discussion can happen, depending on the level of every student's understanding. In contrast, if we only provide questions that we expect every student to answer the same way, could they be giving us the answer and have no understanding? We can challenge students to explain their thinking by prompting them, "What makes you say that? Can you explain what that means? Can somebody add on to this particular explanation?” 

Unfortunately, most of the surface strategies that students develop to ‘get the right answer’ don't really produce long-term value. Instead, learning at the point of challenge is about creating a shift in students' thinking so that they're developing an understanding and building the skills to generalize and use that knowledge. It’s about building the skills to think in context. It’s about challenging their thinking, reinforcing their understanding, and providing different entry points for different learners. 

It can be hard as teachers to watch our students struggle, but the outcome is powerful and the supports are available to help them turn productive struggle into deeper learning. Learning happens at the point of challenge, when we make the space for it and focus our students on thinking-oriented challenges. When we create tasks focused on student thinking instead of facts, and thinking in itself is the reward, the growth we see is amazing.  

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”