We frequently hear about how in math education we should engage students in “productive struggle”. While there is some value in having students synthesize prior knowledge from worked examples and scaffolded problems, this is generally not what is meant by “productive struggle”. Generally it means having students solve problems that are usually one-off types that do not generalize. What prior knowledge students may have to draw upon is in most cases very small and lacking in sufficient practice for students to be able to apply it efficiently. And if prior knowledge is absent, students are expected to obtain it via “just in time” learning, which would arrive without sufficient practice and mastery.
Students are expected to collaborate with fellow students, and dissuaded from asking the teacher for help. If the teacher is asked to help, the teacher is usually instructed to not give answers to students questions but to facilitate the student to answer their own questions.
The result is like throwing someone who lacks swimming skills into the deep end of a pool and asking him/her to swim to the other side. The result is generally a struggle to keep from drowning–which is not the same as learning how to swim.