Which Is Better: “Desirable Difficulty” or “Productive Struggle”?

The obvious answer to my question is: “what a silly question.”

After all, the two phrases sound almost synonymous, don’t they?

Being “productive” is often “desirable.”

We often respond to “difficulty” by “struggling.”

When I face a “desirable difficulty,” I’m likely to engage in “productive struggle” — no?

This obvious answer, however, doesn’t seem to hold true in the world of education.

In fact, as far as I can tell, champions of “desirable difficulty” often decry “productive struggle” — and vice versa.

Let me explain.

Group A; Group 1

Many debates in the field of education boil down to two rough camps or teams.

These teams disagree quite heatedly about MANY questions; as a result, finding neutral terminology to name them gets complicated. You might hear about:

Progressive vs. traditional, or

Teacher-centered vs. student centered, or

Direct instruction vs. constructivism, or

… well, the list goes on and on. (All of these terms contain inaccuracies, but they offer a place to start.)

Perhaps the least partisan differentiation works like this:

Champions of high-structure pedagogy believe that working memory limitations require careful teacherly guidance through complex paths of learning. This “team” — often misunderstood to be “traditional” — roughly favors a teacher-centered classroom, direct instruction, a knowledge-rich curriculum, and so forth.

Champions of low-structure pedagogy believe that students learn best as they build (that is, “construct”) their own mental models by discovery, trial, and error. This “team” — often mislabeled as “progressive” — typically favors a student-centered classroom, inquiry or discovery pedagogies, a skills-based curriculum, and so forth.

To be clear, every sentence in these two paragraphs invites LOTS of disagreement and debate. But they’ll serve as a useful starting place.

Now, proponents of both high- and low-structure pedagogy want students to THINK HARD. (No surprise there. As Dan Willingham has written, “memory is the residue of thought.”)

BUT — here’s the big reveal — each team has a different name for the right kind of hard thinking.

As best I can tell:

Team high-structure promotes “desirable difficulties,” like spacing, interleaving, retrieval practice, and generative learning strategies.

Team low-structure promotes “productive struggle,” as students wrestle to construct their own understanding through inquiry, discovery, and so forth.

These phrases — which seem like synonyms outside the high vs. low debate — serve as team jerseys for thinkers engaged in the debate.

So, high-structure champions don’t think much of “productive struggle” because that phrase signifies open-ended project pedagogies.

Low-structure champions don’t like “desirable difficulties” because they suggest an excessive level of teacherly control.

In this way, rough synonyms turn into markers of strong disagreement.

Renaming the Rose

This paradox — “synonyms signal strong disagreement” — in turn highlights an important part of this debate.

Champions of both high-structure and low-structure pedagogy want students to THINK HARD.

mathematics professor solving complex equations on a blackboard

The key difference between them: what’s the right kind of hard thinking?

In other words: what principles should guide us as we decide when and how students think hard? And — implicitly — how do we measure the success of our pedagogy?

Rather than saying “that team is entirely wrong,” we can say:

“That team has a different set of principles behind achieving a goal that we share.

We certainly disagree about those principles, but because — again — we share the goal we have a good place to start a conversation about meeting it.”

Long-time readers probably recognize one of my core beliefs in those sentences.

I have long argued that cognitive science reseach can’t tell teachers what to do. Instead, that reseach can help teachers think about what to do.

If we shift the high-structure/low-structure debate from a to do list (“follow these pedagogical steps”) to a to-think list (“think about making students THINK HARD in these ways”), we just might get the best ideas from both approaches.

After all: as long as students do the right kind of hard thinking — no matter the label we use to describe it — learning will result. Surely that’s a goal we share.

 

category: L&B Blog

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