This year I have been leading a cohort of elementary math educators in my district. We met for two full days in July – you can read about that here and here – and throughout this school year we’ve met every other Thursday after school.

In December, our meeting focused on the work of Robert Kaplinsky, specifically his IGNITE talk about productive struggle and his website openmiddle.com.

At the start of the session, everyone reflected on what “productive struggle” means to them. This is important because as certain phrases become popular in education, they quickly become jargon. I wanted to ensure everyone had a chance to think about how they interpret the phrase and share that with the group. Then we watched Robert’s IGNITE talk.

The image that stood out most to me from his talk was the one of the mom riding the bike for her child. It seems so silly, and yet there are many instances as teachers where we can find ourselves doing the thinking for our students instead of letting them try either on their own or with our support.

At the end of the video, Robert puts out a call to action for teachers to create opportunities for students to productively struggle. And why not start by having the Math Rocks participants do some productive struggling of their own? Regina and I posted 10 problems around the room. We let everyone loose to do some math for 15 minutes. They dove right in!

All 10 problems came from openmiddle.com. If you aren’t familiar with the open middle problem type, here’s a brief summary: (You can learn more here.)

- they have a “closed beginning” meaning they all start with the same initial problem
- they have a “closed end” meaning that they all end with the same answer
- they have an “open middle” meaning there are multiple ways to approach and ultimately solve the problem

After debriefing as a group and sharing information about open middle problems, we came back around to the idea of productive struggle with this video from Michael Pershan. The whole thing is interesting, but for the purposes of our discussion, we watched the first 30 seconds of the video, and then we watched from 1:45 to 5:45.

By this point, we had made our case and it was time for the participants to take a stab at designing their own open middle problems. They had a choice of writing one from scratch or taking an existing problem from our curriculum and redesigning it as an open middle problem. A nice surprise is that our adopted textbook, Stepping Stones, already uses open middle problems in many lessons and activities! They don’t name them as such, but that’s essentially what they are.

We shared out the open middle problems they wrote. Afterward we gathered them together in this document if you’d like to see our first attempts. We closed the session with their homework assignment – giving their students an open middle problem and reflecting on it in a blog post. If you’re interested in learning more about open middle problems – especially learning from teachers trying them out for the first time! – check out our open middle blog post collection.

The consensus from the group seems to be that they can initially throw kids off if they’re not used to being asked questions like this, especially for those kids who want to neatly and easily come to the correct answer, but the questions provide opportunities for the type of thinking and struggling we want our students to engage in and we need to be using them more often.