Wednesday, July 14, 2021

It's Supposed to Be Hard

While I find myself occasionally using the phrase, "it really isn't all that hard"... I can also honestly say two things:

1. I have worked hard to remove that phrase (and others like it) from my repertoire over the years (but it still creeps in once in a while)

2. When someone needs encouragement, I try to tell them they can do it and the effort they put into it will be worth it.

A recent article in the Washington Post discussed the concept of being honest with children about the difficulty of math.  The basic idea being put forward here is that we do not help someone who is trying to learn math by telling them that it is "easy" or "not too hard."  After all, if you assure them that it is easy and they struggle with it, what conclusions are they going to draw?

It was supposed to be easy and I can't do it, therefore I must be stupid.  Or, I can't do that, something is wrong with me.  Should we be surprised that so many people claim to be "no good at math?"  

Well, with a set-up like that, what else are they supposed to conclude?

It's a bit like giving someone the walk-behind tiller in the picture above and telling them they need to till the entire field you see there.  As you tell them this is their task, you say something along the lines of "it's an easy job."

How would you feel if I did that to you?  Is it likely you'll just decide to go somewhere else and find another thing to do?  When I ask about it, what excuse might you give?  Something along the lines of "I'm not very good at tilling, sorry."

Yeah, I thought so.

I guess I had a reputation that my classes were "tough" wherever I taught.  That's definitely something I can live with, that's for certain.  

As a teacher I routinely told my students that they should expect these classes (especially the introductory classes) to be difficult.  I reminded them that they haven't done this before, and if it were easy to learn what you needed all on your own, then this class wouldn't be worth your time now, would it?  

Some were unhappy that I would make these classes so hard.  But, it wasn't me.  It was the subject that was posing the challenge.  My job was to assist in whatever ways I could in learning - that was MY job because I'd already been there and these tasks are easy (or easier) for me.  If anything I was pushing them forward INTO the subject at hand.  I wasn't letting them skirt the edges so they could just "get through the class."  I did my best to be there, giving a hand up when it was needed, pushing them in the right directions, answering questions - and I was always cheering for them.

Why?  Because I know that worthwhile learning is not easy.

And yet, I still hear the words "it's easy, all you have to do is..." escape my lips far too often.

What I am doing when I say that is just being lazy.  What I mean to say is that you should not be scared of what looks like a pile of rotten roofing material in front of your house.  Once you figure out the 'trick of it' the task will not seem as daunting as it does now.  Will it be hard?  Yes.  But, you'll get there, and I'm willing to help you with that.

Most of the time, "it's easy" is meant to encourage.  We offer the words "it's easy" from the other side of experience.  We've already tilled that field and cleaned up that pile of roofing ourselves.  We know some of the techniques and shortcuts.  We have some practice doing these things and we know how to use the tools that come with the job so it isn't so daunting.  

And maybe, you happened to be one of the lucky few who came to the learning with an advantage.  Perhaps you had an aptitude for this sort of thing.  Is it possible you had gotten lucky and learned about some tools somewhere else that you recognized could be used here too?  One of your parents used to do this all the time and would take you along to help once in a while? 

To us, it IS easy.

To them, it looks like an impossible task.

Well folks, it is NOT impossible.  But, the task of learning is difficult.  It's supposed to be hard, because you'll come out on the other side and find what you know after the struggle is worth it.

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