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4 minutes reading time (845 words)

The Struggle of Learning

This IAE Blog entry was written late in December of 2019, and then expanded and republished on 1/4/2020.


Struggle is Essential to Learning

Jo Boaler is a math education professor at Stanford University. She is a prolific author, with ten of the books she has authored or co-authored listed in the Wikipedia (2020). I believe you will enjoy viewing an online three-minute video of one of her projects, “Inspire All Students with Open, Creative Mindset Mathematics” (youcubed, n.d.).

I thoroughly enjoyed reading one of her recent articles, “Why Struggle Is Essential for the Brain–and For Our Lives” (Bohler, 10/28/2019). Quoting from her article:

As parents and teachers, we do just about everything we can to make sure that children don’t struggle. It turns out we are making a terrible mistake. Research shows that struggling is absolutely critical to mastery and that the highest achieving people in the world are those who have struggled the most. The more I communicate this message to parents and teachers the more stories I hear of complete personal transformation.

Neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity and if we are not strugglig, we are not learning.  Not only is struggle good for our brains but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential. This knowledge would not be earth shattering if it was not for the fact that we in the Western world are trained to jump in and prevent learners from experiencing struggle.

Can you tell if she is talking about learning mathematics, or whether what she is saying is applicable to every area that requires human learning? I’ll give you a hint. Do you think that the neurons in one’s head know whether they are working on a math problem or on a problem in some other specific discipline? I suspect that the research Boaler is discussing is applicable to any area of study that requires addressing challenging problems and questions.

However, Boaler is a math educator, and math educators want their students to learn to solve math problems (Moursund, 6/4/2019). Learning to solve math problems is the essence of learning mathematics. Here are two related quotes from George Polya, a leading Hungarian mathematician and math educator of the 20th century:

Mathematics consists of content and know-how. What is know-how in mathematics? The ability to solve problems.

To understand mathematics means to be able to do mathematics. And what does it mean doing mathematics? In the first place it means to be able to solve mathematical problems. For the higher aims about which I am now talking are some general tactics of problems—to have the right attitude for problems and to be able to attack all kinds of problems, not only very simple problems, which can be solved with the skills of the primary school, but more complicated problems of engineering, physics and so on, which will be further developed in the high school. But the foundations should be started in the primary school. And so I think an essential point in the primary school is to introduce the children to the tactics of problem solving. Not to solve this or that kind of problem, not to make just long divisions or some such thing, but to develop a general attitude for the solution of problems.

There is more to mathematics than just being a discipline for learning to solve math problems. Math is a useful aid to solving the problems in a great many other disciplines, as well as in everyday life. For example, consider all of the sciences. Or, consider money. I would bet that you will have little trouble making a list of various types of financially related problems that a person has to learn to deal with effectively in order to function well in the economically advanced countries of the world.

What You Can Do

View each problem that you encounter in your daily life as an opportunity to improve your overall capabilities to solve problems. Pay special attention to problems that you find to be challenging, ones that stretch your problem-solving capabilities. Indeed, revel in the glory of discovering problems of this type that are relevant to you, personally. Do metacognition (think about your thinking) as you attack these problems. Think about what you are learning, whether you succeed or don’t succeed in solving the problem.

References and Resources

Boaler, J. (10/28/2019). Why struggle is essential for the brain—and our lives. Ed Surge. Retrieved 12/26/2019 from

Moursund, D. (2019). Improving mathematics education. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/3/2020 from

Moursund, D. (6/4/2019). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/4/2020 from

Moursund, D. (2016). Math problem-based learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/4/2020 from

Moursund, D. (2016) Word problems in math. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/4/2020 from

Moursund, D. (2015). Technology and problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/4/2020 from

Wikipedia (2020). Jo Boaler. Retrieved 1/3/2020 from

youcubed (n.d.). Inspire all students with open, creative mindset mathematics. Video: 3 minutes. Retrieved 1/3/2020 from



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