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Productive Struggle

  • by Kelly Harmon & Randi Anderson
  • May 4, 2018, 2:48 p.m.

Did you know that the first antibiotic, Penicillin, was discovered from a productive struggle that Dr. Alexander Fleming was in? Yes, a productive struggle is what lead to the discovery of the life saving drug in 1928! Dr. Fleming discovered mold growing in petri dishes after returning from summer vacation and said that the mold had contaminated his study. He later discovered that the mold actually stopped bacteria from growing.


When students are comfortable, they aren't spurred on to change or learn. The best learning takes place when students think they have made a mistake or are annoyed by an obstacle that they must overcome. Mistakes are welcomed, because learning takes place when students have to revise their thinking and add to their schema. Just like Dr. Fleming did back in 1928. He encountered a struggle where he had to revise his thinking.


My good friend Ryan Doetch says "Mistakes are expected, inspected, and respected!" Piaget tells us that mistakes are how we add to our schema. Basically, we learn more when we make mistakes! Educators should make mistakes and discuss past mistakes in front of their students. This will show that we are all constant learners and making a mistake is not a negative thing. Mistakes show the ability to learn and humility (and humility looks good on everyone).


The Association for Psychological Science says "For individuals with a growth mind-set, who believe intelligence develops through effort, mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn and improve. For individuals with a fixed mind-set, who believe intelligence is a stable characteristic, mistakes indicate lack of ability." 


Don't be afraid to let students take the learning reigns and struggle through and make mistakes. Refer students to resources such as the success criteria so that they have the tools to figure out the situation. Allowing students to examine their errors is a crucial instructional strategy that promotes growth. This is also a real world tool everyone needs. We are constantly evolving and learning and it is through mistakes and failures that we do the most learning!



Kelly Harmon and Randi Anderson

About The Authors

Kelly Harmon & Associates began in 2001 with a mission of instructional coaching and providing rich literacy resources for educators and parents. Our work incorporates research-based best practices for teaching and learning.

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