Thursday, July 17, 2014

What difficulties are desirable in our classrooms today?

What I love best about summer is that I finally have time to think. As a teacher the rest of the year is a constant doing. You are always on, acting in the moment, or preparing to act. You reflect, of course, but it’s always about what you've done, not the kind of sideways meandering that thinking demands. When I spend too much time staring directly at the problem, I seem to lose sight of it entirely, so whenever I can I read off topic. My mind always comes back to education, but with new eyes, I think.

That’s why I’m reading philosophy, right now, John D. Caputo’s Truth: Philosophy in Transit. He’s touring me through history, sharing the ideas that led to a postmodern concept of truth. He pauses on Kierkegaard, of course: “The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.” In other words, it’s difficult. But Kierkegaard is an advocate for difficulty. He writes:
…wherever you look in literature or in life…you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful …when all join together to make everything easier in every way, there remains only one possible danger, namely the danger that the easiness would become so great that it would become all too easy.  So only one lack remains, even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty.  Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1844). 
What would Kierkegaard, already concerned about the easiness of life in 1844, have thought of our lives today? How could he even imagine cars, planes, smart phones, instant messaging, and information streaming to us in 140 characters or less? How could he have foreseen our enormous capacity for making our lives easier? Our world is awash, now, in clicks and dials and buttons that turn on a machine to do our work or to entertain us; an endless supply of pills and an industry of self-help gurus ease us when we are sad, angry, depressed or spiritually lost.

And yet, we are not happier, if that’s important. We focus on eradicating difficulties as though we would then be satisfied, but perhaps Kierkegaard is right – perhaps what we feel now is the lack of difficulty. Perhaps it is only in living with and through difficulty that we understand our own strengths and gifts. What is a life without difficulty, but a kind of cardboard existence?

But there is, of course, no dearth of difficulties today. While the individual daily lives of many of us is easier, we have not yet eradicated the great social difficulties: war, poverty, hate and subjugation, violence against each other. I teach children whose lives are so wrought with difficulty that our impulse is simply to ease their lives – to provide food, clothing, comfort. It’s hard to focus on teaching fractions when students are hungry, when they have seen and heard and lived in the darkest of places. Yet an education is the best we can offer, so that the children can find ways to use the gifts that difficulty has forged in them to make different choices in the world and for the world.

But educating children whose lives are difficult is, well, difficult. Our tendency is to help. A lot. We yearn to erase the difficulties of learning, scaffolding each step, creating visuals, games and manipulatives to explain abstract concepts, connecting, supporting, aiding, so that the children are not burdened with yet another difficulty. But the truth is, learning is difficult. In our efforts to remove the difficulty from learning, are we, at the same time, reducing the opportunity for learning?
Consider the research by Christof van Nimwegen: two groups of volunteers work on a difficult logic puzzle on a computer - transferring coloured balls between two boxes according to a set of rules. One group had software that was designed to be as helpful as possible, providing clues and hints. The other group had a bare-bones software. Who learns best? If our assumptions about what is best in a classroom hold true, the answer should be the helpful software.

And the group with the helpful software did learn more quickly, but the proficiency of the other group increased more rapidly. (How often do we stop thinking and wondering about what’s best after the quick gains?) In the end, the group with the unhelpful software did better. Those using the unhelpful software were able to plan ahead and plot strategy, while those using the helpful software tended to rely on simple trial and error. That is to say, the group without help developed their own strategies that made sense to them and improved their ability to perform. And more important, eight months later the unhelpful software group were able to solve the puzzles twice as quickly.

This idea of what researcher Robert Bjork calls "desirable difficulties" is counter-intuitive. I’m sure Kierkegaard would like the phrase. We continue to think that easier is better. But it turns out, at least in learning (and perhaps in life), that we are wrong. Bjork posed this question to a group of students. Before the lecture you are given either a lecture framework (Ia,b,c; IIa,b,c and so on) or a different article on the same topic. Which would you prefer? Students both preferred the framework and thought that it was more helpful. (How often do we stop here, after everyone agrees on what is best?) But then the researcher tested it. Half the students got the lecture framework; half got an article that dealt with the same material. He lectured and then gave them the same test. In the recall questions, both groups performed the same, but in the inference questions that tested their understanding of the information, students who read the article did better. Why? Bjork argues that it injects the "desirable difficulty" necessary to learn (think) rather than merely perform (memorize).

I keep wondering why we still have suffering in our world today, why in BC, a land of such abundance, in a time of such ease, one in five children suffer in poverty. I keep thinking that education is our best path, that our children, given the tools they need, will find the way that we have not yet. But lately I've been wondering if I have spent too much time thinking about how to make learning easy. In doing so, will I therefore aid in perpetuating the cycle of difficulty that we most wish to prevent for our children?

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