Let Them Struggle: Raise The Bar In Elementary Mathematics

After reading this article, I was inspired to continue re-thinking how I teach math in the elementary classroom.  If you don’t have a minute to read the article, it explains that there is a healthy amount of frustration that is productive in mathematics instruction.

I absolutely love that idea. Last year when I did the Mini Golf Course Project during geometry, I saw a very healthy amount of struggling happening (though the students didn’t know it!). In this project, students designed mini golf course holes using specific geometric terminology that was introduced in earlier lessons. I knew I had to do something to connect those obscure words to something. After the first day students were so impulsive to hand in their sketches. After checking through all of the designs, only TWO students had approved sketches. I went back to the Standards for Mathematical Practice once again.

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

Where was their perseverance? When I handed back sketches that weren’t approved I got a few sassy comments like “Do we HAVE to do this?” and “This is too hard for me!”.  We sat down as a class and discussed why only 2 students in the whole class had approved designs.

After calming down, we came up with a list together:

  • We aren’t used to thinking this hard about things!
  • I’ve never done anything like this before.
  • I didn’t do very careful work.
  • I rushed to get it done because I knew money was involved.
  • I thought you would correct the parts that were wrong for me.
  • I am still not sure of what some of the terms are.


We realized that every single one of their problems on the list were things that they could solve.  We talked about how frustrating it felt to get their design back, with no corrections and without approval.  By validating their frustration, I was letting them know that I KNEW they were working hard, they just had a bit more to go. We talked about how to solve each of those problems on the list we had just made.

By the time the project was over and everyone was getting their payout, the students claimed that it was their favorite project of the year.  The frustration eventually changed to pride as they cut, glued and designed their little masterpieces. The frustration was worth it.

I need to remember how that frustration changed, because every project I do will likely have that moment.  Helping them work through that feeling is the key to their success!



One Comment

  1. I used to teach alot like this. I had to stop and ask myself, “What happened?” I’ve let this type of teaching slip out of my hands because of the pressure of moving the kids along according to the predetermined pace. So wrong!



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