The Cult of ‘Hard’

Picture the scene: a parent and child, at the end of an hour’s tuition. Looking for confirmation as to how her son or daughter is progressing, she asks how the lesson went, and is told in a small, emphatic voice that “it was really hard!” Very possibly she’s pleased, and feels that this kind of challenge, these high expectations, are exactly what her child needs.

I’m going to say something mildly controversial here: if she does, she’s almost certainly wrong.

It’s easy to see how the misapprehension takes hold. Hard work, in the sense of repeated application of tiresome tasks, is vital to exam success. High expectations really do work wonders. And there’s the oft-peddled idea that modern pedagogy has become too “soft”, lacking in the strict classroom disciple that some consider essential to helping kids learn. So it makes plenty of sense that a parent might view a “hard” lesson as a good one.

It isn’t. In fact, if a child said that at the end of one of my lessons I’d be mortified, and I’d likely be spending the rest of that evening working out what I’d done wrong, and how to teach that topic better the next time. Put simply, if something was hard for a student to learn, it means that their prior knowledge didn’t support it. And if their prior knowledge didn’t support it, it was the wrong thing to be teaching them.

Essentially, good teaching is the art of making things feel easy. Kids aren’t consulting some sort of gigantic national database when they decide whether something is “easy” or “hard”.1)If kids report that what they’re learning is “too easy”, if usually means that it fits so securely with what they know already that it isn’t actually expanding it. That’s still better than too hard, because there’s a general tendency for children to over-estimate how well they know something, but it’s still bad. Rather, they’re reporting on how neatly the new information that they’ve been expected to learn fits into the framework of knowledge that they’ve already constructed. If it doesn’t fit, it won’t stick. They’ll remember it for a week, perhaps even pass the test, but then it’ll be gone. And the list of the things that they haven’t understood will be one item longer, for the rest of their educational career.

Pupils taught material in this manner are put into a horrible position, in which they must memorise incomprehensible techniques as if they were alchemical formulae, complex and arcane invocations that turn lead into gold for reasons entirely obscure. Once this method of learning has taken root, the spiral of incomprehension sets in. More and more future knowledge has to be built on these shaky foundations, and the day comes quickly when the whole subject has ceased to “make sense”. At this point, there’s little that even the best teaching can do but to start again from the point where the rot took hold, which can often be several years in the past.

The alternative to this, and the only cure for it, is to build knowledge step by gentle step, checking constantly that the foundations always remain firm. After all, one can’t forget what one has truly understood, and the best learning is an matter of understanding rather than one of memorisation.2)This is true in all subjects, even those where memorisation is essential. When I teach Latin, I’m always struck by how often my pupils are being asked to learn complex forms like the passive and pluperfect without really having grasped what these even are. Equally often, they’re being moved to these tenses well before they have a secure grasp of simpler forms such as the perfect and future tenses. Teach at the right pace, introduce concepts at the exact point at which students become ready for them, and you’ll find that you’re able to communicate even “hard” ideas securely and quickly. Challenge your students, but make very sure that they’re equipped with the tools they need to rise to those challenges. It’s certainly tricky to get it just right. But when you do, the student won’t find your lessons hard at all. They may not be easy, but they’ll be something even better – they’ll be fun.

Notes   [ + ]

1. If kids report that what they’re learning is “too easy”, if usually means that it fits so securely with what they know already that it isn’t actually expanding it. That’s still better than too hard, because there’s a general tendency for children to over-estimate how well they know something, but it’s still bad.
2. This is true in all subjects, even those where memorisation is essential. When I teach Latin, I’m always struck by how often my pupils are being asked to learn complex forms like the passive and pluperfect without really having grasped what these even are. Equally often, they’re being moved to these tenses well before they have a secure grasp of simpler forms such as the perfect and future tenses.