Four Steps for Getting Unstuck

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Wendy Ward Hoffer

Distinguish Productive Struggle from Despair
When we raise the bar and ask learners to rise up with greater effort, we need to remain vigilant to their levels of frustration: productive struggle is one thing, but despair is entirely another.

They look different: learners engaged in productive struggle are leaning in, asking questions, writing, thinking, puzzling, discussing while despair takes us away to the drinking fountain to dawdle and avoid work (though a walk to the water fountain might be a needed brain break for a diligent learner as well).


Productive struggle includes asking questions and discussion.

Last week, I watched a group of students grapple very hard to interpret a challenging graph: first they read silently and annotated their papers, then they discussed it as a group, asking questions and sharing ideas, then they all got silent again, staring at their papers, jotting notes, then looked up and discussed more, and finally agreed to go talk with other groups to see what they were doing. This perseverance went on for fifteen minutes, but as an observer, I was impressed that no one gave up; they were able to persevere because not only did they have growth mindsets but also they relied on strategies to support their productive struggle.

Lessen Helpless Handraising
One basic principle we can promote is the idea that there is nothing wrong with being temporarily “stuck” as a learner, given that one then pursues the means to become “unstuck.” Strategies for getting unstuck can include a broad array of resources, materials, tools, classmates, research, and thinking, as well as drawing on one’s own internal reserves of resolve. Some teachers take times to chart these and keep them posted in the classroom as a ready reference for mired mathematicians or engineers. Train students to avoid helpless hand raising and instead identify a need and fill it for themselves: model, practice, debrief, and reflect on their efficacy at navigating the stickiness inherent in navigating complex STEM challenges. The following are some suggestions to help learners persevere.

teach-learners-to-get-unstuckHow to Get Unstuck

1.  Realize that you are stuck

2.  Determine what you need in order to get unstuck.

3.  Get what you need. (If you are not sure what you need – ideas, information or resources—get something and see if it helps. If not, try something else).

4.  Take a deep breath and persevere.


Thinking strategies are excellent strategies for getting unstuck.

Perseverance Comes Naturally with a Growth Mindset
When we have a growth mindset, we know that getting stuck is just part of life; everyone’s been there; there’s no shame in it. When we honor, rather than shy away from, the struggle and have strategies to manage the stress of it, our perseverance flourishes.

Adapted from
Cultivating STEM Identities Hoffer Cover webHoffer, Wendy Ward. Cultivating STEM Identities, Strengthening Student and Teacher Mindsets in Math and Science. Heinemann Publishing, 2016. (28-29)

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