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Anticipating Productive Struggle in the Focusing Question Arc

Virginia Day

by Virginia Day

September 13, 2023
Anticipating Productive Struggle in the Focusing Question Arc

every child is capable of greatness.

Posted in: Aha! Blog > Wit & Wisdom Blog > Assessments Preparation Planning > Anticipating Productive Struggle in the Focusing Question Arc

The Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol is one tool Wit & Wisdom® teachers use to prepare effective instruction. In this month’s post, implementation leader Virginia Day shares why using this often overlooked protocol offers a powerful tool for improving instruction.

When I walk into friends’ and family members’ homes, I occasionally notice tiny lines with dates etched onto walls or doorframes. These lines serve as a record of their children’s growth over time. Some lines are clustered close together, representing periods of slower growth. Large gaps between lines indicate growth spurts. Whether they’re documenting slow or fast growth, my friends and family members celebrate it by marking on the wall, and they support their children’s growth by providing nutritious food, regular exercise, and loving care.  

Teachers also celebrate and support their students’ growth. Like my friends and family, teachers realize that individual student growth happens at different rates. Knowing that each student might need different supports, teachers work to provide the tools students need to keep growing. For this reason, teachers must understand the knowledge and skills that students should develop, where students might struggle with the learning, and how they, as teachers, need to respond in students’ moments of struggle. While it might seem that students’ growth has slowed when students struggle with new material, powerful growth often occurs as they grapple with challenging new learning.

How Wit & Wisdom Teachers Plan for Growth

As part of Wit & Wisdom instruction, teachers prepare by using the Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol found in the Wit & Wisdom Preparation Protocols in the Teacher Resource Pack. This tool is used once teachers complete the Module Study Protocol but before they engage in the Lesson Study Protocol. When teachers understand the purpose and flow of an arc’s learning goals, they feel empowered to make strategic decisions about pacing, feedback, and appropriate supports that can lead to productive struggle. Fostering productive struggle builds resilience, confidence, and curiosity in students.

Teachers who have had the opportunity to attend a Module and Lesson Study professional learning session are familiar with the concept of productive struggle. Students productively struggle when taking on appropriately challenging tasks. To engage in productive struggle, students need task clarity, appropriate supports for exceedingly challenging work, and opportunities to grow from mistakes. (To learn more about productive struggle, read this article.)

To create a learning environment in which students experience productive struggle, teachers should understand where learning is going—and where students might be challenged. The Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol effectively prepares for productive struggle by helping teachers understand how a lesson arc develops students’ knowledge and skills.

The Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol

Once they complete the steps of the Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol, summarized below, teachers can better provide students with opportunities for productive struggle.  

Steps 1 and 2: See the big picture. These steps ground teachers in the knowledge their students will develop through reading. Teachers first review the Focusing Question and their notes from the Module Study Protocol. Then they review the module’s core and supplementary texts to consider how these documents build knowledge students need to respond to the Focusing Question.

Step 3: Find the flow. Next, teachers review the Module Map. By examining the progression of the arc’s Content and Craft stages, teachers learn how the organization of daily learning develops the big picture from Steps 1 and 2: Learning centers on building knowledge through complex texts and expressing that knowledge through writing, speaking, and listening.

Step 4: Understand how assessments connect to the module Learning Goals. Then, teachers explore the arc’s major assessments and use the Knowledge and Skills T-Chart they created during the Module Study Protocol to identify the knowledge and skills students learn in the arc. This step builds a clear connection between the learning students will need to demonstrate throughout the arc and the module’s larger learning. Every arc includes a Focusing Question Task, but many also include other major assessments, such as a Socratic Seminar or a New-Read Assessment. Such assessments provide students opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills before the End-of-Module Task. Like lines etched on a wall, assessments help teachers mark students’ growth.

Step 5: Anticipate the flow of productive struggle. Finally, teachers read the arc’s Prepare and Analyze boxes in lesson order. Reading the Prepare boxes, found at the beginning of each lesson, clarifies the central learning so that teachers can prioritize the lesson’s most important elements. The Analyze box, located after each lesson’s Wrap, clarifies what students should demonstrate during the lesson and how to respond to their learning with appropriate supports and pacing.  

Using the Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol to Maximize Productive Struggle

As educators complete the protocol, they can maximize their students’ productive struggle by focusing on these three critical areas.

Prioritizing Key Learning

Once teachers understand each arc’s purpose, they can make pacing decisions to help students succeed in the Focusing Question and the End-of-Module Tasks. Since students are likely to acquire critical knowledge and skills at different rates, teachers can consider the most helpful places to add more practice time.

Anticipating Supports

Teachers can use information captured in the protocol to anticipate where students might need support with key skills. Considering what these skills look like in action prepares teachers to give feedback to their students. Additionally, each assessment’s criteria for success can help teachers offer specific praise and guidance before the assessment as students do the heavy lifting of developing knowledge and skills.  

Preparing for Growth

The Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol reveals to teachers the potential for students to grow a knowledge base and skill set over time. By reading the Prepare and the Analyze boxes in order, teachers begin to understand where it’s acceptable for students to struggle in lessons—that is, teachers are able to see how a mistake or misconception can strengthen learning opportunities in a following lesson.


Teachers, like caregivers, are closely attuned to students’ growth over time. They measure and celebrate this growth while they also consider how to support students when growth stops or slows. When teachers understand the lesson flow in a Focusing Question Arc, they can decide when to speed up, slow down, provide corrective feedback, or allow space for students to make mistakes and learn from them. Internalizing an arc’s learning with the Focusing Question Arc Study Protocol makes anticipating productive struggle easier so teachers can prepare effective supports and give strong immediate feedback as students learn and grow.

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Topics: Assessments Featured Preparation Planning