Life is hard and we try to make it easier. Every technological advance we’ve ever made, from the digging stick to the Smartphone, springs from this simple statement. Life is hard and we try to make it easier. So it has always been; so it will always be.
There’s nothing very controversial about that idea, but what’s interesting is the extent to which our desire to make things easier for ourselves may undermine our efforts or make us less happy and successful. There is something in us that doesn’t really like it when things are too easy—and easier may not actually be better for us.
When I was a child, in the 1970s, the country was still in the middle of its love affair with technology and science. Processed food was better than natural food; infant formula was better than breast milk; TV dinners and microwaves were better than cooking from scratch. So much convenience! Life was hard, but technology could make it easier. It was the World of Tomorrow that Disneyland and the World’s Fair promised for much of the 20th century.
The backlash started while I was still a teenager: maybe all those chemically processed things weren’t actually good for you. The Whole Earth Catalogue, health food stores, and whatever remnant of the hippie movement survived into their 30s brought a focus on authenticity and naturalness into the mainstream. And more recently, we’ve seen a different kind of backlash, against the very idea of ease. Now we want things to be “artisanal,” and we want to be involved in the making, ourselves, if we can. Cooking from scratch is difficult, time consuming, and requires some knowledge and skill, but for some people, eating pre-packaged meals (no matter how organic or healthy) is just…a drag. Suddenly we’re seeing all kinds of meal-kit services popping up to provide just enough ease, while still requiring us to do some of the work. It turns out that we actually like to do the work. We get enjoyment and satisfaction out of it. We appreciate the fruits of our efforts more when there is some effort. Just…not too much. Build your own furniture…with an Allen wrench from Ikea.
We’re seeing the same thing in automobile technology. Google and others are pushing hard for self-driving cars, and someday I’m sure there will be a percentage of people who make use of them. But for a whole lot of people, driving is fun, and the thought of surrendering all control is not a pleasant idea. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future where most of us make use of a wide range of assistive technologies, while still keeping our hands on the wheel. We’ll end up doing some of the work—enough to get some enjoyment out of the process and feel a little bit in control—while still reaping the benefits of the assistive technologies that can unsnarl traffic jams and keep us from drifting out of our lanes.
What does this have to do with education? A lot! We’ve been searching for all kinds of ways to make learning easier, to increase student engagement and motivation. Schools adopt 1:1 laptop policies to put computers into the hands of every student so that they won’t have to take notes by hand. Schools de-emphasize memorization on the theory that the Internet holds all the factual knowledge students will ever need. Many schools use open-source videos to augment or replace textbook reading. At my son’s high school, the science teachers prepare PowerPoint presentations of their lessons and deliver those slide decks, with their notes, straight to the students. Everyone applauds to see adults making an effort to ease the path for students and not bog them down with old-fashioned schoolwork like memorization, recitation, note-taking, and textbook reading. But what if the drive to increase ease decreases learning? What if learning something actually requires a certain amount of effort?
Research seems to suggest that it does. Authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L., Rodiger III, and Mark A McDaniel provide a wide array of examples of how increasing student effort at learning also increases later retrieval of that learning, in their book, . Writing things down by hand seems to have a stronger effect on remembering what you’ve written than typing or dictating the same words. Memorizing and repeating basic factual knowledge helps build a foundation of conceptual understanding that makes all future learning more meaningful and stickier in the mind. Active manipulation of the instructional content, rather than passive viewing of it, makes a huge difference in how deeply and permanently that content is learned. Spacing out practice and assessment sessions over a period of time, rather than doing massed practice and testing shortly after instruction, allows some time for forgetting and makes the effort at retrieval both harder and more durable over the longer term. We’ve known for a long time that cramming for a test may help you on test day, but it doesn’t help you remember things a week later. Now we’re starting to understand why.
Some education thinkers and writers use the term “productive struggle” to talk about this idea that a certain amount of sweat aids learning. It’s like the idea of the Goldilocks Zone or Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: that sweet spot where conditions are just right for growth. Make the work too easy and you won’t learn anything new from it; make it too hard and you won’t even be able to do it. Think of lifting weights in the gym: you could bench press a 1-pound weight all day, and it wouldn’t have much effect on your muscle tone. You could struggle all day with a 500-pound weight and accomplish nothing but a headache.
This makes the work of the teacher even more complicated than it already was, because every child’s zone of productive struggle is a little bit different from every other child’s—and not only that, but his zone of struggle may not be the same in math, English, science, or social studies…OR in Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, and Unit 4! Aim for the average every day—average amount of instructional time, average difficulty level of assignment—and you’ve made plans that fit no single student perfectly.
So what can we do? Assess constantly, adjust constantly, have alternative explanations and questions at the ready at all times. And most importantly…resist feeling sorry for your students when you see them sweat. Resist the urge to make things easier for them, unless you have really good data to guide you. You may not be doing them any favors.