Productive Struggle vs Struggle Period

One of my professional goals in the classroom is to do a better job with differentiation.  I’ve tried a few strategies, but I seldom feel like I am truly challenging my brightest students while providing the support others need.  Motivated mostly by grades, often the top students do not welcome more challenging work as they want to secure the quick A by blasting through an assignment my lower level students will find challenging.

Enter Mathalicious.  I was really excited about trying out the AppleCare lesson as I was hoping it would be a great platform for differentiating by giving students some choice in what they wanted to research and in how they wanted to present their work.

I began the lesson with the Mathalicious radio clip from Marketplace Money as a reporter describes her experience being offered an extended warranty from Best Buy.  After the clip we had a great discussion as almost everyone had a story they wanted to share about something coming apart the day after the warranty expired, or having a problem their pricey warranty didn’t cover.  The students were highly engaged and totally agreed a warranty is really just an insurance policy.

Next up, students worked in small groups to complete the Student Handout.  They breezed through the calculations and the conversations stayed right on topic (incidentally, typo on the Lesson Guide:  32 gb Ipod Touch with 50% failure rate should be $149.50).  During the full group discussion, we talked about how different people might value AppleCare differently for the same device.  I found it interesting that when I asked them about skateboarding teenager and a grandmother both using iPods, they overwhelmingly felt the grandmother had a greater chance of dropping her iPod Touch ha ha ha.  Oh, these 8th graders think anyone over 30 is just ancient.  The conversation really took off as we delved into what is and what is not actually covered under AppleCare.  This was a natural segue into the extension activities.

As mentioned earlier, I wanted to give students as much choice as possible, so I ran through both the Terms & Conditions and the Warranted Warranties extension assignments and gave students plenty of choices.  They could do either assignment, individually or with a partner, could research any industry that interested them and present their findings in a variety of ways.  I had resisted the urge to do each of the assignments myself and show them an example of what their results could look like, because many students would simply model their work exactly after mine.

google formWe went to the computer lab during the next class so students could work with their partners and decide how they wanted to approach the project.  I created a Google Form for students to complete to make sure they were on track.  I was completely surprised at how much students struggled at this point.

As I walked around the computer lab, many students asked me to explain exactly what they were supposed to be doing.  I had already given students several handouts:  a blank Mathalicious Project Planning sheet,  the Terms & Conditions student handout and the Warranted Warranties student handout.  I redirected students to the handouts as they peppered me with questions.  “Which assignment should I do?”  “What website should I go to” “What do I need to do to get an A?”

I was at a bit of a loss.  I expected a “productive struggle,” knowing students would be a bit uncomfortable with the open-ended nature of the assignment, but honestly had not expected “struggle period.”  They just seemed unable to get started.  I realized that in my efforts to NOT tell them exactly what to do, perhaps I hadn’t given clearly communicated expectations.  That afternoon I flipped through some of the posted rubrics and modeled one after Julie Reulbach’s excellent Pizza Project rubric.  I created rubrics for both of the extension activities and shared these with students during the next class.  This did seem to help, but there was still a lot of “come look at this and see if this is right.”  

Back in the classroom, I spent some time going back through both assignments.  I attempted to answer questions without steering them to choosing one specific topic, and again, did not show them finished examples as I was still hopeful they would choose to research products that interest them.  Two of my stronger students decided they would improve the AppleCare warranty to include things that are important to them and a curious thing happened.  Many of the other groups simply jumped on this bandwagon, and also decided they would improve AppleCare.  When denied a teacher generated “exemplar,” the students just kind of seemed in limbo until a classmate made a choice, and they simply adopted this as the exemplar.

Some students DID research areas of interest (yay!) but found it challenging.  Two girls decided they wanted to create a warranty for stillettos, but they could not find any statistics on how often stilletto heels typically break.  Another group decided to offer a warranty on hockey sticks, but similarly, they had difficulty finding statistics to help them decide on pricing for their warranties.  Most groups did opt to go with a revised AppleCare warranty.  Here are some student projects:

This was definitely a learning experience for me.  In a climate where EVERYTHING seems to hinge on students passing the End of Year Test, I fear my students are indoctrinated to believe there can only be one, correct answer.  Whereas I thought providing a lot of choice would create an environment of freedom that would allow my students to pursue topics that interest them, instead it resulted in an uncomfortable stew of discomfort where my students couldn’t propel themselves in any direction.  Now I realize they need a bit of scaffolding to stretch beyond their current comfort zone.  Like any other skill, it is just going to take a bit of practice.


About merryfwilliams

High school math teacher and mom of 3 amazing kids. I have a high maintenance husky and am adding a knitting obsession to the juggling routine. @merryfwilliams on Twitter
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8 Responses to Productive Struggle vs Struggle Period

  1. reilly1041 says:

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing. So the few kids who actually thought about it and came up with a unique idea got stuck by internet research. That’s frustrating! And something you could never anticipate and avoid.
    When I did the Mathalicious pizza project, I did make an example and the students’ work looked like mine. But….it was still really challenging for them just to do research and figure out to turn a local pizza chain’s crappy website into a meaningful graph. I do think it helped the kids who needed help, too. I put my example up by my desk and just a few kids went up to actually study it, and those kids couldn’t have moved off square one without it.
    I think that Julie teaches in a school that is project-based (I believe I heard her say that or read it), most students in most schools have never much that doesn’t have one right answer, like you said.
    So even though it didn’t turn out as you had envisioned, it sounds like it was a valuable process. If nothing else, it showed that real research is hard! Only book problems are neat and closed-ended. Thx for sharing, Mary.

    • It definitely was a valuable process – I do a lot of projects and really didn’t realize how structured the majority are! I’m looking to do the Pizza Project next and am going to follow your lead and provide an example. I think you are spot on that it will still be challenging but will provide some scaffolding for those that were just at a loss as to how to get started! Thanks for your comments 🙂

  2. Mary Dooms says:

    I’ve run into that problem too. What I’ve started to do, along with the rubric, is create a less wordy criteria for success that is based on the key areas from the proficient category. For example, Your project: 1) includes multiple representations of data from at least two existing warranties, 2) communicates the rewards and risks of purchasing a warranty–(my question is: is this also the driving question?) 3) is aesthetically appealing 4) work habits are on-task and collaborative. Then the project is not accepted until all the criteria have been met. That would take care of the “checklist” portion, then you could re-work the rubric to incorporate synthesizing and other Blooms’ type of higher order thinking. Not sure if any of this helps, but that what popped into my mind.

    • Thanks for your insight! A checklist would definitely help – the rubric is wordy, and I think that could deter some students from reading through it and understanding what they need to do 🙂

  3. C. J. Godwin says:

    I have found similar problems in my classes. I have been working on implementing the Common Core standards. Since this is many of my students first experience of intentional struggling, they (and I ) are having growing pains.

    I too have found the rubrics help focus them. The biggest growth I have seen comes from peer grading. They see the difference between poor and really great work.

    Thus far, I have made a game of critiquing their verbal responses. Next term, the will have a rubric and the group and/or partners will be given weekly points based on their discussion responses.

  4. Kate Nowak says:

    Thanks for being so thorough and giving us such a clear window into your experience. I can’t tell you how helpful this is.

    • The Mathalicious materials were great – the kids were totally engaged with the video clip and the student handout. It was just surprising they would have such a hard time when presented with lots of opportunities for choice. I’m looking to do the Pizza Project next and am going to provide a little more structure to help them become more comfortable with open-ended assignments!

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