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