Productive struggle has become the new phrasing of choice for the point where kids have to learn something new, based on something they've already learned. It's when they get pushed farther than what they already know. Other variations on this theme include teaching with scaffolding, and getting students in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. As teachers, we specialize in getting students to this point, and helping students realizing they really can do what we're helping them accomplish.
However, as teachers, we're really good at NOT reinventing the wheel. Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented though. (In case you haven't noticed, wheels have changed greatly since the stone age. I imagine folks in the tire industry could verify this!) In education, we find something that works, and we stick with it. We save it, file it away for next year, and laminate it. This saves us work and brain power, so it's a good thing, right? Not always.
I'm in my 6th year of teaching technology, which for 8th grade meant photojournalism. This year, 8th grade has been changed to a STEM course. They already have science and math, so we're working heavily with the robotics/engineering side of STEM. As a technology teacher, who really prefers educational technology in the regular classroom, the technical side of my job is not my forte (i.e., "Why isn't it printing?" ".... I don't know.") but I've muddled my way through. Now, teaching programming with robots, I've been given a significant push out of my comfort zone. However, when push comes to shove, you make it work. So, I've been learning about robots and programming right along with the students. And I tell students this is as new to me as it is to them, and I won't have all the answers for this.
Every day, I truly feel the productive struggle. As out of my element as it makes me feel, it reminds me that we ask students to do this every day. This empathy reminds me to be patient and as explicit as I can with directions, because it's all they have at the moment. The productive struggle is meaningful for us as teachers because of the empathy it creates, but also because it means we are becoming the lifelong learners we encourage our students to be. By expanding our horizons to something new, even if it's hard, we're gaining valuable knowledge and experience to help us with other things we might attempt. Most importantly, when we admit this learning to students, they witness us modeling trying new things, occasionally failing, and getting back up and trying again. They have to see this if we ever want them to venture out, imagine, and do great things.
The words at the top of this post are from teachers at a professional development session I taught this week about using social media in the classroom. For some folks, it was an easy transition to say, "I have my own Facebook account, but I'd like to make one for my class to share with parents what we're doing." For others, it was literally scary. But they were willing to take that leap, knowing that there were baby steps they could take and they had a support structure to help them when it was needed. This is what a true productive struggle looks like.
So as you go through your school year, try something new. It could be something little or something big, but try something that is a little out of your comfort zone; something you're not sure if it'll work yet. You'll understand your students a bit more, learn something new, and model the productive struggle for our students, that they may be inspired to learn as well.
So go out and reinvent that wheel! :-)