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Hard Work

October 10, 2009

“Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking… Compared to your ability to see and move, thinking is slow, effortful and uncertain.”

Dan Willingham (2009)

“The going was hard; there was nothing to be got without learning how to get it, and it was understood that nobody went to school in order to enjoy the sort of happiness he might get from lying in the sun.”

Michael Oakeshott (1975)

“Enjoyment of learning and attitudes … Are pupils happy with their work? Are they proud of it? Are pupils interested in their work and in what they are learning? Or are they easily distracted?”

OFSTED (2009)

“Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably.  The lesson is, never try.”

Homer Simpson

Learning is hard work. It can be interesting. It can be inspiring. It can be satisfying. It can be rewarding. It can even be enjoyable. What it can’t be is indefinitely easy. Unless you are wasting time learning trivialities, then even if you are a very fast learner you will reach your limit and sometimes find yourself out of your comfort zone. Eventually, you have to engage in the uncomfortable pursuit of thinking. Eventually, you are exposed to more knowledge than you can comfortably absorb without mental exertion. Eventually, you will feel at least some desire to give in. Eventually, you will require some discipline to make progress, whether it is your own self-discipline, or external pressure applied by your peers or your teacher.

Now, this is pretty much common sense. Isn’t it?

Well no. The belief that there is a short cut to learning is widespread. Perhaps we all have a special learning style, which if utilised would mean we grasp everything easily. Perhaps clever use of ICT can speed knowledge straight into our brains. Perhaps we can be taught extensively without ever losing interest, just so long as what we are learning is made “relevant”. Perhaps science can be relied upon to tell us the perfect way to be taught. Perhaps we can be guided to discover everything we need to know for ourselves without even having to be taught it directly. Perhaps, learning would become easy if we were taught a list of words to describe it. Perhaps, all the difficulty is simply a result of an undiagnosed medical or psychological condition which, if treated, would make learning easy.

This might all be nonsense, but it is what many people want to believe. It often seems that the people who believe it, even teachers who believe it, are rarely academic high-fliers themselves, but this just makes it all the more convenient to believe. Academic failure can be a result of teachers failing to make it easy, rather than our own weakness of will, or lack of ability, when faced with a challenge. Good teaching does aid learning, but now, instead of expecting good teachers to teach us more knowledge for the same level of effort, we expect them to teach us the same amount of knowledge while we make less effort. Suddenly a good teacher ceases to be one who taught us a lot, and becomes one who made us comfortable. Pleasure replaces achievement as the proof of good teaching. If it can’t be made easy it must be chucked out. If it can’t be made painless then it is cruel to inflict it. Students must never be forced to learn, or even suffer the indignity of failing to learn. The learning process becomes more important than the content of what is learnt and the most important thing a teacher can be judged on is whether their students had fun learning. A teacher who is more concerned with the depth of learning rather than the pleasure in learning must hate children. Mr Miyagi would have been a monster. Jamie Escalante was a disgraceful bully. Nobody must ever save us from ourselves. Nobody must ever make us achieve. We can all be happy failures, so long as nobody tries to make us succeed.

References

OFSTED, The quality of teaching and the use of assessment to support learning, Briefing for section 5 inspectors, 2009

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Willingham, Daniel T, Why Don’t Students Like School,  Jossey-Bass, 2009

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26 comments

  1. …. which is why i dont like the surveys OFSTED insist on giving to the kids and parents prior to inspection. well some of the questions at least are just silly and invite unfair criticism. History is BORING etc etc. Perhaps its cos the history teacher doesnt just show videos or do endless debates or poster work. I’m not saying some teachers arent boring its just I dont always accept student/parent comments uncritically. Its certainly true that if the teachers dares to insist on certain standards it can lead to the famous ‘poor relationship’. If OFSTED were to simply accept that this dynamic exists it might make teachers less defensive under inspection.


  2. I recently had one student who decided he was going to drop my A level class after getting 10% in a test. He admitted he had done no work, but what astounded me was that he said had expected 50% He would have been happy with a worthless 50%, but not a worthless 10%, apparently.

    How have we come to a situation where even the laziest student genuinely expects at least a pass just for attending class?

    (It’s a rhetorical question really, I suspect much of the answer but feel powerless to do anything in a system that has no space for teaching, only for faux ‘learning’. The suspects include exam targets and league tables, governments needing the figures to show improvements, weak headteachers who value ‘booster sessions’ and quick fixes over deeper teaching along with the fears of letting children take responsibility for their own learning (or lack of it), and of letting subject experts make their own teaching decisions.)


  3. Hear hear. I made the same observations, though less eloquently, and was told I was a lazy pedagogue and only like kids who are just like my own. I don’t deny the essential truth of the assertion but it’s not the reason I agree with you.


  4. Why don’t students like school? is a superb book that I highly recommend to any teacher.

    I find that the teachers who believe this are often the ones with poor behaviour management. When I see teachers agonising over every minute of their lesson because they genuinely believe that if they plan their lessons intricately enough and well enough then the behaviour will magically change and the pupils will become engaged I despair. However I find this to increasingly be the case with some (but by no means all) inexperienced teachers.

    I have also seen pupil voice used appalling badly on this sort of thing. I remember i was teaching a top group and the gifted pupils were given a survey on their satisfaction with their lessons. I was grilled by management afterwards as to why so many pupils found my lessons “boring”. When I openly asked my pupils why they had said my lessons were boring I got priceless comments back like “We aren’t allowed to talk”, “We have to spend too much time writing”, “We have to do our work”, “We aren’t allowed to muck about”, “The lesson is long”, “you are so extra”, “All we ever do is work” etc etc.

    I had to stop them and explain that they had misunderstood the nature of my role in the classroom and more to the point the nature of theirs.


    • I agree with much of what is said in the article and your points, but have to disagree with your planning point:
      “When I see teachers agonising over every minute of their lesson because they genuinely believe that if they plan their lessons intricately enough and well enough then the behaviour will magically change and the pupils will become engaged I despair.”
      I find good detailed planning both increases the chances of good teaching and learning happening in my lessons, and because I have bothered to make an effort the students responds with more respectful behaviour. It is not a case of ‘scripting’ a lesson, but creating the circumstances that students can take advantage of in a positive manner. Not all do, but the chances are increased.
      By the way, the pupil feedback you mention is very familiar and I’m proud to say I receive similar comments!


      • Given that I plan pretty heavily myself, I probably have to agree with you. However, I think there is such a thing as overplanning and planning is not a cure for a class who won’t work.


        • Fair point, although it is individuals that won’t work not classes. Perhaps the answer is accepting that individuals won’t ‘work’ in the recognised classroom sense and schools sorting out a curriculum that gives them the opportunity to succeed in a different environment (whether this be in or out of the manstream school). I’m not proposing just ‘vocational’ courses, but maybe there are a group of students out there that by seeing that they can learn/succeed in something will encourage them to be more resilient in a classroom. Or am I being worryingly optomistic?


  5. James, I feel your pain. The kids in my school complain like hell if you ask them to write more than the shortest sentence.

    We have to do our work

    Oh, the flash of recognition…

    I am frequently faced with pupils who, when given a simple comprehension exercise, will put up their hands before the worksheet even hits the desk.

    “I don’t geddit.”

    “What don’t you get”?

    (shrug and all-encompassing wave at the piece of paper)

    “That.”

    “Well, you read it, you answer the quesions – that’s it.”

    “Yebbut, I still don’t geddit.”

    “Well, tell me what you don’t get, and I’ll help you.”

    “None of it.”

    “Well, read the sheet, then if you still don’t understand when you’ve done that, put your hand up and I’ll see if I can help.”

    “But I ‘AVE read it.”

    (knowing they haven’t) “Well, read it again, because the answers are there – I know because I wrote it!”

    (two minutes later)

    “Miss – wot’s the answer to number 1?”

    “It’s in the first paragraph.”

    “No, it in’t. Miss, why in’t you HELPING me?”

    “I am helping you. What I’m not going to do is do the work FOR you.”

    There’s an ever increasing expectation that we’re there to provide “fun”. Now, whilst I’m not at all averse to pupils enjoying school, there comes a point at which they have to learn things for learning’s own sake.


  6. I am in total agreement with all of this article. I am a new teacher but an ‘oldie’ aswell. I am not surprised by the children’s avoidance of hard work -nothing new there. But I am astounded at how adults collude with children and in what I can only judge as a need to be needed, by saying that learning should be fun and require next to no effort on the part of the child and all the effort on the part of the adult. No wonder our children are finding it hard to mature properly.


  7. caz, the TA and I read your story to some year 9s the other day. They recognised the conversation as one they’d had many times. Will this recognition change them? I’m not holding my breath.


  8. I am frequently faced with pupils who, when given a simple comprehension exercise, will put up their hands before the worksheet even hits the desk.

    “I don’t geddit.”

    It’s a pretty common experience:

    http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2007/12/01/i-dont-get-it/


  9. Of course learning can be hard work, nothing wrong with that and people like to work hard to learn stuff that they want/need to know.

    People resist learning when they are coerced.

    Don’t teachers read any John Holt nowadays? If he’s too dead for you then what about Howard Gardner?

    There is a short cut to learning, it’s wanting to learn.

    “Nobody must ever save us from ourselves. Nobody must ever make us achieve. We can all be happy failures, so long as nobody tries to make us succeed.”

    There is no need to make other human beings succeed. Do you folks really think your job is to save kids from themselves? Maybe they don’t want or need your kind of saving?


    • I’ve read a little John Holt and a lot of Howard Gardner, although what Howard Gardner has to do with your point is beyond me.

      The problem with Holt, and with what you are saying, is the idea that what are obviously children’s flaws are a result of coercion from teachers. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it turns out that human nature is flawed.

      Children, released from adult authority, do not become autonomous, self-disciplined individuals who rationally pursue their own interests and the interests of their peers. They form their own power structures, and invariably, their leaders from their own ranks are far less enlightened, far less concerned about the well-being of others, and far less likely to value learning than even the most negligent teacher.

      Adults have enough trouble living without external authority; children don’t have a hope. If adult authority was the cause of children’s failings then the unsupervised children who haunt our street corners would be the most enlightened, most reasonable, most scholarly, most kind, of all children.

      Guess what? It doesn’t work like that.


      • I was thinking particularly about Howard Gardner’s book the unschooled mind and how given a supportive learning environment children will learn better than.

        As for releasing children from adult support (I use that rather than authority, though I have no issue with carefuly applied and justified authority) well that would be neglect, I agree with you such children suffer rather than thrive.

        I am well aware that we humans are fallible, that’s why it’s important that we share what we know with children but not in a coercive way. We could be wrong!

        We adults have a real responsibilty to support children’s development not to direct it though, there is no need to do that.

        Have you seen this?

        http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html


        • “I am well aware that we humans are fallible, that’s why it’s important that we share what we know with children but not in a coercive way. We could be wrong!”

          Sounds plausible. Until we stop and think about it. How much of what we teach might actually be wrong? Spelling? How to solve equations?

          I don’t mind humility as a virtue, but the main advantage of having a good teacher is that they are not wrong; that they teach with authority. It’s not that students shouldn’t think for themselves, but that before they learn to think for themselves they have to learn to think effectively, and that takes hard work and expert guidance.

          I’m not sure why you think we shouldn’t direct children’s development. Are you really unconcerned whether your children develop into idiots or experts? Citizens or serial killers? Nor am I sure why you think that it is ever possible to raise children and not direct their development. Actually, I’m not sure what you are trying to say at all.


        • I’ve watched that video. My only question is “why?”

          I never doubted that sometimes children can teach themselves or others. That doesn’t mean they should or that such a method is genuinely effective. Common sense suggests that it is, in a large number of areas, not very effective at all and invariably the next step after suggesting children teach themselves is to suggest that there is not much worth knowing.


        • I was just going through my bookshelf doing some research for an upcoming blog entry and I discovered that I own a copy of “The Unschooled Mind” and I’ve read it. Suffice to say, I didn’t recognise it from your description.


    • some saving examples:
      when i was a cocky, academically weak 14yo my maths teacher literlly forced me (and a few others) to conform to a set of rules that i was not used to. We had to follow a precise hw timetable and he inspected our work meticulously. I hated his guts at the start but becuase I didnt want 5 detentions every week I reluctantly gave in. I then discovered a joy for maths. I now teach this subject I had previosly loathed. He changed my life. but for him i would a farm hand or in a supermarket. He unlocked my potential. Some studnets dont need this approach. I did.

      Other examples: I get xmas cards from ex pupils of mine who i previosuly gave a hard time to at school. I saved many from expulsion at my earlier schools. I used coercion every step of the way. “You will do your maths hw or I will ban you from the footy team for a month”.

      Schools that coerce kids into a strict unifrom often have many voluntary afterschool clubs, a debating team, a wholesome respectful community where oppsing views are heard and appreciated.

      Schools were little coercion takes place have shouting matches, stabbings, low academic achievement, drugs, abuse, gang membership etc.

      Lord of the flies may be fiction, but so is your dream utopia.


  10. ever heard of lord of the flies

    liz (and i am suspending disbeleif as she is perhaps the agent provocateur here) would be the 1st to complain if her child was injured due to a lack of strcuture at a play group or school setting.

    anyhow, we all need a bit of coercion. most retired people or lottery winners suffer depression as there is routine, no need to get up in the morning.

    in my experience kids thrive on structure, pace & high expectations. there is nothing wrong with insisting students are punctual and that they do their homework.


  11. “but the main advantage of having a good teacher is that they are not wrong”

    Uh Uh if we raise children to think that there is a group of people who are right we raise sheep, a dangerous practice.

    We can have good theories that might still be wrong. We can never be sure, however much evidence we have seen, that evidence will not appear to show we were wrong. It is on the basis of this Popperian philosophy that I parent with confidence. It’s a confidence not that I am always right or that anyone who teaches my kids should be right but that we all should strive to have rational theories always with the proviso that they might be improved on with new information.

    “We could be wrong!”

    Sounds plausible. Until we stop and think about it. How much of what we teach might actually be wrong? Spelling? How to solve equations?”

    Spelling may well be improved on. I remember little about equations, my education was ineffective on that front but luckily I haven’t needed to use that information.

    “It’s not that students shouldn’t think for themselves, but that before they learn to think for themselves they have to learn to think effectively, and that takes hard work and expert guidance.”

    Do you also think that dicipline comes before learning? I’m a little swayed at the moment because I’m reading Alice Miller’s “For Your Own Good” your satement above sounds like something she quotes from a 19th century German book on pedagogy. They advocated killing the childs will before attempting to teach.

    “ever heard of lord of the flies”

    Yes it’s fiction. But I am not advocating that adults take a laisse faire approach to education or to child rearing. We are needed to support, protect and provide a rich environment, if we chose to bear children we have a duty to provide those things.

    “liz (and i am suspending disbeleif as she is perhaps the agent provocateur here) would be the 1st to complain if her child was injured due to a lack of strcuture at a play group or school setting.”

    I’m real, I’m engaging with this discussion in the hope of seeing that a bunch of teachers might have a more positive view than the one that appears here. I’m wondering if you migth have a better faith in human nature and in particular of evolution and they way we humans have increased our learning ability over the generations.

    I have never made they type of complaint described above. I consider it my responsibilty to chose appropriate environments for my child and to trust those who care for them. When one fell from a tree house I empathised with the child and the childminder. I was glad he turned out to be fine, I was glad too that she continued to let my child have fun in trees and tree houses, he was more careful from then on.

    When the school we picked turned out to be unsuitable we didn’t create a fuss we simply found a better option. Not all parents have the choice to behave like real clients on their children’s behalf in the education process.

    I take the falibility thing seriously, and positively. I try to learn from my mistakes and improve on my choices rather than blaming others.

    “Common sense suggests that it is, in a large number of areas, not very effective at all and invariably the next step after suggesting children teach themselves is to suggest that there is not much worth knowing.”

    Common Sense is just that “common”, it is not always rational.

    The children were not teaching themselves, they were learning from each other and the world they were engaging with.

    Of course there is much to be known, there is so much in the world. We don’t just learn from other people, though we learn much from people who are prepared to share knowledge, though personal interaction, books, TV, internet.
    None of that needs to be coerced though. Unless we are coercing one person to try to force a bunch of kids to learn stuff. In that case I can see there might seem a need for coercion. In that case I can see it might be very difficulty to think of non coercive, creative teaching methods. I don’t blame teachers for these methods, it’d just be good to see that they are necessary because of the context. In a different context children could learn with passion and without coercion.

    Plenty of people can develop self discipline and make choices without imposed routine. I know people who are retired and not depressed. I also
    know children who learn autonomously who thrive without coercion. They do often choose “structrure, pace and high expectations” They can be punctual, consider the needs of others and they can certainly work hard.

    Thanks for helping me reflect on this


    • I’m rather late on this one, but the fact that ‘Lord of the Flies’ is fiction does not mean that it is untrue (unless you are deliberately defining fiction in a stupidly reductive way in order to troll).

      As anyone who’s read the book will know, Golding was describing the behaviour he had seen during many years as a teacher in a boys’ prep school. The only fictional element apart from the setting are his inferences as to how that behaviour would develop if the controlling adult hand were taken away.

      It’s funny that every class of boys, of whatever age, with whom I have ever done the novel recognise immediately the image of boys it contains, while you claim not to. I wonder who we should believe?


  12. “I’m wondering if you might have a better faith in human nature and in particular of evolution and the way we humans have increased our learning ability over the generations.”

    One thing we have most certainly not done over the generations is increase our learning abilities. Like any other modern city dweller, I’d starve in the Australian bush despite being surrounded by nutritious ‘bush foods’ because I’ve never been taught how to distinguish edible from inedible plants & animals. The only thing that changes over the generations is the content of what is taught to children, not their capacity to learn.

    The best thing we can teach children is that we have a wonderful range of accumulated knowledge – we all stand on the shoulders of giants. Leaving children to ‘discover’ their own capacities, imagination, curiosity, intelligence and discipline is to abandon our responsibilities to them. Some children need the firm nudge Rob was talking about to ‘discover’ their eventual love for maths or piano or archery or writing. And letting them think that maths or spelling is optional and can be improved by an immature, untaught, undisciplined mind is downright wicked.

    It took hundreds of years and the combined efforts of several civilisations to construct the magnificent edifice of mathematics. Spelling ‘anomalies’ are a fantastic way to introduce students to the notion that our language has grown and developed throughout a long history – yes, Virginia – once upon a time people did actually pronounce the w and the k at the beginning of words like write, wrong, knit and knee.

    The fact that in any group of children there will be a few who are intelligent enough, curious enough, self-disciplined enough or imaginative enough to control and guide themselves through a successful education is not a good basis for the teacher of a class. Even the clever may lack imagination, the curious may lack the self discipline to pursue their interests, whatever. Teachers must try to get the best from all. It may come easily from a few, but most need assistance, guidance and firmness. The balance will vary from student to student, but the elements are always the same.


  13. [...] few weeks ago, Old Andrew wrote that learning can sometimes be Hard Work, reminding us that while learning can indeed be fun sometimes, it’s not always the case. [...]


  14. “Uh Uh if we raise children to think that there is a group of people who are right we raise sheep, a dangerous practice.”

    Learning from experts is not sheep-like behaviour, it is the only way to learn more than the trivial. We have thousands of years of civilisation behind us, it is insanity to ignore that.

    “We can have good theories that might still be wrong. We can never be sure, however much evidence we have seen, that evidence will not appear to show we were wrong. It is on the basis of this Popperian philosophy that I parent with confidence. It’s a confidence not that I am always right or that anyone who teaches my kids should be right but that we all should strive to have rational theories always with the proviso that they might be improved on with new information.”

    This is just a muddle. It is not Popperian philosophy to ignore experts; Popper simply described the source of expertise in science (and a few years later was shown to be wrong even about that).

    And have you spotted the obvious contradiction in naming a theory as grounds for ignoring theories?

    “Spelling may well be improved on. I remember little about equations, my education was ineffective on that front but luckily I haven’t needed to use that information.”

    As I predicted earlier, this is what tends to happen in discussions about the value of expert knowledge – people who devalue knowledge end up admitting how little they themselves know.

    “I’m real, I’m engaging with this discussion in the hope of seeing that a bunch of teachers might have a more positive view than the one that appears here. I’m wondering if you migth have a better faith in human nature and in particular of evolution and they way we humans have increased our learning ability over the generations.”

    Here we go again. A view of human nature that ignores the facts is not “positive”, it is simply wrong. As for your comments on evolution, if your teachers had been more expert, or had insisted you listen, you might have learnt that evolution isn’t about improvement; it is about adaptation to circumstances. Something that has evolved is not inherently “better” than what didn’t.

    “Common Sense is just that “common”, it is not always rational.”

    If it is irrational in this circumstance then please demonstrate. The point is that you have neither rationality nor every day practicality on your side here.


  15. Trying to show off how clever oneself is all the time is the manifestation of the belief that we have a fixed level of intelligence and therefore have to prove it. This results in avoidance of hard work, avoidance of challenge and children never wanting to leave their comfort zone for fear of being ‘shown up’ as having a lower intelligence than is perceived of them. I’m not advocating teachers making deliberate mistakes, but the modelling of being able to learn from mistakes is something which is far more valuable than any one particular fact a teacher could impart, given that the same fact could be discovered in a great many other ways. If teaching were solely about crowd control and teaching facts and key discoveries from history, do we need teachers at all or just ex army officers with free license to use corporal punishment?


    • Can’t speak for anyone else, but if I “show off” my ability to the kids it’s to demonstrate the level of fluency that they should be hoping to achieve. This is the exact opposite of saying intelligence is fixed.

      Not sure where you get the rest of your stuff from. Crowd control and teaching facts are really important but obviously they are not enough and I don’t see anyone saying anything else.



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