Struggle is how we learn. Rich tasks provoke productive struggle, during which students actively struggle through a problem as they work to make sense of it. This is not the same as being stuck. When students are stuck, they are not making progress. More time will not help. But in productive struggle, students are working in that sometimes herky-jerky way in which we all solve real problems.
To struggle and actively make sense, students must encounter tasks for which they do not have a ready procedure to execute. Such tasks are in what Vygotsky (1978) called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), where tasks are neither so simple they can be completed without much thought nor so hard they cannot be completed with the student’s current understanding. Tasks in a student’s ZPD can be tackled using what the student knows but
require a good stretch to figure them out—and they learn from the process. This means that in sharing a rich task with students, we should not also be sharing how we would solve it; if we do so, we rob students of the opportunity to figure that out for themselves.
Rich tasks push students to grapple with big mathematical ideas, search for connections, make mistakes, and constantly ask themselves, Does this make sense? A task should support students in moving toward a deeper understanding of an important idea. In choosing or writing a rich task for students, a critical question is, what big idea do I want my students to grapple with?
Jen Munson is a postdoctoral fellow in learning sciences at Northwestern University, a former classroom teacher, and a professional developer who works with teachers and school leaders across the U.S. to develop responsive, equitable mathematics instruction. She is coauthor of the Mindset Mathematics curriculum series.