Productive Struggle, or Why Architecture School is a Model for Education in General

One of the most influential trends in pedagogy today, especially in the world of K-12 education, is Project-Based Learning, sometimes abbreviated as PBL. Rather than discrete lessons about individual subjects, PBL takes a more integrative, more active, and often a more collaborative approach to learning. Students are challenged with projects which require integration across disciplines, complicated learning tasks that require complex thought and connections to be made. While the project definition provides a framework, students are given the freedom to determine the direction and content of their investigations, making them actively responsible for their own learning. According to Kathy Uhr, Lower School Head and Project-Based Learning Expert at Fort Worth Academy, “PBL provides students with the opportunity to dive deeply into their learning while acquiring critical knowledge and skills. It encourages students to stretch themselves and to persevere through the obstacles and challenges they face.”

Since projects are typically completed in teams, students learn the “soft skills” required for collaboration along with the curricular material. Project deliverables can take a variety of forms, from research papers to constructions to video production. Upper School students at the Hockaday School, for example, recently created “teaser” posters with a QR code, which then links to a custom website for each project containing research findings.


There is plenty of research illustrating that active, learner-directed activities result in more engagement with the material, better learning outcomes and improved concept retention. The soft skills learned are beneficial as well, and the team/project structure serves as preparation for today’s collaborative workplace. In fact, many graduate and professional schools have already adopted a project-based methodology as a better training strategy for the business world, and this style of teaching and learning is increasingly finding its way into undergraduate education.

One fundamental idea underlying project-based and learner-driven pedagogies is the concept of Productive Struggle. Here are two interesting articles for more information on the subject:

Though targeted at a specific field of study, architectural education is a perfect illustration of Productive Struggle. Every architecture student knows that the most effective learning happens not in the classroom but in the studio, where each student works on his or her own approach to a common and open-ended problem/project. The studio process is iterative, testing and evaluating multiple approaches until the desired result is achieved. The “struggle” happens as students advance their design concepts through each iteration and alternative approach. While the instructor provides constructive criticism and coaching, students also learn by collaboration, bouncing concepts off one another to test and defend their ideas.

Pedagogically, PBL and Productive Struggle are not without challenges. How can teachers understand and evaluate the learning accomplishment of an individual on a group project, and how to understand the investiture and contribution of the individual within the dynamics of the group? How should a teacher evaluate a project which has disproved the hypothesis on which it was based, when failure to do what the individual or group set out to do may in fact have produced more meaningful learning than if they had succeeded?

Project-based programs can also have unique space implications, influencing the design of learning spaces to best support those programs. Project-based learning spaces often take on some of the characteristics of a laboratory, with flexible workspace that can be easily reconfigured as projects and group configurations change, and they require more square feet per person than for a more static classroom. Team workspace outside the classroom is important for brainstorming and project planning, and students often ask for green screen space for video production. In-classroom storage space is always a necessity, but a place for in-progress work is even more essential when projects may require multiple class sessions to complete and the same space may be used by other classes doing different projects at different times of the day. Schools that proudly exhibit their project-based focus to visitors need space for display and storage of completed projects as well.

Integrative, active and frequently collaborative, project-based pedagogies make students responsible for their own learning, facilitating cross-discipline connections and encouraging students to stretch themselves and to persevere through obstacles and challenges. At the core of the project-based approach, productive struggle teaches persistence and promotes grappling with complex academic concepts, teaches students to take risks, and helps them to learn and grow from the struggle.


Jonathan Rollins is a Principal with GFF Architects