Coaching for Constructive Struggle

by Sue Chapman, Professional Learning Specialist
July 24th, 2017

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In her book Faster Isn’t Smarter: Messages about Math, Teaching, and Learning in the 21st Century, Cathy Seeley talks about the importance of providing students with opportunities for constructive struggle through problem-solving experiences that are both engaging and challenging. As students engage in constructive struggle, they construct deep personal understanding of the mathematical ideas that are embedded in the problem. They also build proficiency in mathematical practices including the capacity for critical thinking, the ability to communicate about their mathematical thinking, and the willingness to persevere in solving complex problems.

One of the reasons it’s difficult for many teachers to understand the importance of constructive struggle and to design learning tasks which allow for constructive struggle is because they have not personally experienced mathematics learning in this way.

And yet…

The act of teaching involves continual problem solving and construction of knowledge. In her book Build a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), Elizabeth Green shares education researcher Lee Shulman’s comparison of teachers to doctors. According to Shulman, the internal decision-making required for teaching is multifaceted, many times more complex than for doctors, because learning is largely invisible and teachers must simultaneously diagnose and address the needs of multiple students. “The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity,” claimed Shulman, “would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster” (p. 38).

We want teachers to engage in constructive struggle every day because this is how the complex problems of facilitating student learning are solved. We also want teachers to engage in constructive struggle because this is how they grow their pedagogical muscles and their understanding of how students acquire mathematical understanding. Constructive struggle leads to engagement and motivation; we want all teachers to feel engaged and motivated in their daily work.

Cognitive struggle is a natural and needed part of teaching but it’s critical that the level of struggle a teacher experiences is constructive and does not become overwhelming, frustrating, or defeating. Coaching is an important vehicle to support teacher learning, and it is also an effective means of ensuring that a teacher’s learning remains constructive, in her Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

When we acknowledge the importance of constructive struggle, we communicate our belief in an individual’s capacity for growth. Let’s help teachers recognize and rejoice in their own constructive struggle as a way of strengthening their craft and their ability to serve students. Let’s publicly celebrate constructive struggle as a valued stepping stone towards learning.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  • What coaching actions support a teacher’s willingness to engage in the cognitively-complex problem-solving aspects of teaching?
  • How can coaching teachers through cognitive struggle build teacher efficacy?
  • How might coaching teachers through cognitive struggle help teachers recognize and appreciate the importance of cognitive struggle in math learning?
  • What are some ways you can help yourself and others maintain a healthy level of cognitive struggle?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Seeley, C. L. (2015). Faster isn’t smarter: Messages about math, teaching, and learning in the 21st century. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.

Green, E. (2015). Building a better teacher: How teaching works (and how to teach it to everyone). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


Sue Chapman, Professional Learning Specialist Math Solutions

Sue Chapman is a professional educator, presenter, and author who has devoted over 30 years to instructional improvement and mathematics education. Throughout her career, Sue has served and taught in several different areas of professional education, including instructional and leadership positions. Sue’s passion for professional learning and her ability to inspire teachers to come together around a shared vision of success have been instrumental in helping schools and districts develop systems and internal capacity to achieve continuous improvement of mathematics instruction.


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