Jacie Maslyk | November 2019

The Importance of
Productive Struggle

A 4th-grade teacher in my school district recently shared that she was handing out the classroom iPads to her students. Not only that, but sending them out with no direction on how to use several new apps.  I totally get that this may seem risky to some! But she wanted them to explore and figure out how they might use these applications in response to an upcoming class project. The lack of instruction did make some students uneasy, wondering what exactly they should focus on.  Others reveled in the opportunity to discover on their own. Another group of students, hesitant at first, jumped at the chance to drive their own creative learning.

Throughout the class, different attitudes existed around the task that the teacher was posing.  Some became uncomfortable when faced with a productive struggle, while others thrived. What is it that makes some students dive into inquiry and open-ended learning opportunities and causes other students to stop in their tracks?  How might we, as educators influence these dispositions and prepare students for the unknown factors that accompany new learning? 

This unknown component is often a part of the learning tasks we design for students in a classroom where STEAM and hands-on experiences are valued.  When we promote this type of learning, students are encouraged to tap into their creative thinking and problem skills. This also often requires them to stretch beyond course content and develop skills. Skills that can be applied in any subject area. 

The 4th-grade students honed in their technology skills when they were using the iPads, yes. But they also began to develop critical dispositions for learning. These dispositions (habits) are essential characteristics that students need to be successful in school, career, and beyond.

Habits of Mind

The Habits of Mind, popularized by Costa and Kallick through their educational research and online institute, detail sixteen ways that we can empower learners and build their capacity.  The habits provide insight into ways learners think, interact, and use information.  Moreover, it is these habits that allow learners to push through challenges, think flexibly, and develop creative solutions to complex problems.  Habits like questioning and posing problems and applying knowledge to new situations can be readily used in the classroom, but also carried over into real-life scenarios.  Students who can apply habits like gathering data and taking responsible risks in the classroom are building skills that will benefit them far beyond the school walls.

Habits in STEAM Classrooms

Consider the problem-solving tasks that learners face in a STEAM-centered classroom.  As they design, collaborate, test, and share their ideas, they will likely need to activate the dispositions that will lead them to success. Classrooms that embrace the integration of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math need learners who are inquisitive, persistent, and creative. Whether engaging in an artistic project or a task that requires planning and building, instilling key dispositions within our students will serve them well.  Arts and engineering go hand in hand (check out the connections that Susan Riley makes) and help to build positive habits of mind with our students. 

The organization Engineering is Elementary has taken the idea of developing the habits of learners and established six Engineering Habits of Mind. These dispositions include: 

  • Systems thinking 
  • Creativity
  • Optimism
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Attention to ethical considerations

Extending the topic of engineering to all aspects of STEAM learning, students can also grow in these habits as they are introduced to new ideas and experiences.  What do these habits mean for teaching and learning? 

Systems Thinking 

Our students need opportunities to see the interconnected nature of different subject areas.  Through STEAM education, learners develop an understanding that there’s math within art and that science and technology impact engineering and design.  When students use systems thinking, they apply what they know to new situations demonstrating the interrelated nature of STEAM learning.


Creative thinking in the classroom means that students are willing to take risks and think flexibly about their learning.  When solving problems, students can apply creative solutions and use their imagination to design new innovations. This habit must be nurtured so that students believe they are creative and regularly use artistic ideas.


Persevering through productive struggles is critical in every classroom.  Fostering an optimistic mindset means that students can actively look for opportunities to learn and grow.  They also look for opportunities to solve problems and tap into the other habits. Even when they’re faced with a challenging task. 


Working cooperatively with a team, learners build skills in STEAM classrooms that promote positive interactions with others. Through collaborative learning experiences and design projects, our students can engage in conversations, co-planning, and group decision-making; skills that will help our students to become creative and active citizens of the world.


When faced with a STEAM challenge, learners may need to identify and define a problem.  Utilizing communication skills, our students can share their understandings, collaborate on ideas and present their work to others. Building communication skills early will help students as they interact with peers and adults both in and out of school.

Attention to Ethical Considerations

As budding artists, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists, our students need to think beyond their own circles of learning and out into the community.  As they design and create for others, they should be encouraged to consider the points of view of others as well as the impact that their work may have on those around them.  These considerations may be a challenge for our youngest learners which is why developing these habits of mind should start early, building our students up as forward-thinking global citizens.

Build Habits Early 

Persevering when we encounter a productive struggle can be a difficult concept for students.  We can encourage them to grapple with new ideas and foster the habits that will allow them to learn and grow from productive struggle as opposed to retreating from it.  STEAM classrooms provide a unique opportunity for learners to engage in creative problem-solving in a variety of ways and activate the dispositions for learning that will increase their abilities to move past learning that is comfortable and push themselves to develop habits that will serve them throughout their lives. 

About the Author

Jacie Maslyk, EdD has served in public education over the last 22 years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary school principal, and assistant superintendent.  A successful school leader, she was recognized as a National Distinguished Principal finalist in Pennsylvania in 2013 and 2014.  She served as an Editorial Advisor for the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Principal Magazine and has published a number of articles on school leadership, literacy, STEAM education, and the Maker Movement.  In 2015, she was awarded the Frank S. Manchester Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals (PAESSP).  She is the author of STEAM Makers; Fostering Creating and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom (2016) which focuses on the stories of early STEAM and Maker implementation in schools. She moderates the monthly #STEAMMakerChat inspired by the topics in the book. Jacie is also the author of the ISTE book Connect to Lead: Power Up Your Learning Network to Move Your School Forward (2019) and the upcoming book Remaking Literacy: Innovative Instructional Strategies for Maker Learning (2019).  Jacie consults with school districts across the country and has presented nationally and internationally.