We observe teachers in professional development courses about energy constructing mechanistic accounts of energy transformations. We analyze a case in which teachers investigating adiabatic compression develop a model of the transformation of kinetic energy to thermal energy. Among their ideas is the idea that thermal energy is generated as a byproduct of individual particle collisions, which is represented in science education research literature as an obstacle to learning. We demonstrate that in this instructional context, the idea that individual particle collisions generate thermal energy is not an obstacle to learning, but instead is productive: it initiates intellectual progress. Specifically, this idea initiates the reconciliation of the teachers’ energy model with mechanistic reasoning about adiabatic compression, and leads to a canonically correct model of the transformation of kinetic energy into thermal energy. We claim that the idea’s productivity is influenced by features of our particular instructional context, including the instructional goals of the course, the culture of collaborative sense making, and the use of certain representations of energy.