Should School Be Hard?

I want to think more deeply about an issue I raised years ago on this blog.  Should someone’s experience in school be “hard”?  Of course such an ambiguous term needs defining first.

My use of the term “hard” here refers to activity which is challenging, difficult, causes the student to expend effort.  While many today believe it to be the opposite of “fun” I disagree and will develop that disagreement below.  But if we can agree to stick with this basic definition of not easy, but hard, difficult, making the student have to rise above their normal level of effort, then we can progress with the question.

My answer, as with most really good questions, is mixed.  It depends on why the student finds the activity challenging.  I can think of at least three reasons for school to be hard, and they each have a differing level of legitimacy in my mind.  I will label these three reasons as: ability, motivation, engagement.  I think any given person may experience all three even in the same day of school.

Ability

In this case, the student finds school activity difficult or hard because they have been attempting some act of learning for which they are ill prepared.  If a teacher assigns work that the student lacks the ability to do well, it will be difficult for them.  This is not necessarily illegitimate by the by.  Math and foreign language teachers do this every day (or should).  Here is a problem or translation, go see how you do on it then we can work on the issues it raises when you have tried and fallen short.  If the teacher does this too early, without proper preparation for the exercise, the hardness of the experience may cause frustration before it can be used to any learning advantage.  But if it is timed correctly, the student is shown his areas of lack and the learning curve actually picks up speed.  While I do see teachers ask things of students that they have no idea how to do, it is really what happens once that ignorance is discovered that matters in our question.  I think this is an excellent part of a good education, if done well.

Motivation

Some school activity requires a willingness from the student to push through a difficult moment, or to invest time in the work that they may wish to invest elsewhere.  I stop short of calling this form of hardness “laziness” but some will call it such.  I don’t just mean kids who don’t want to work at all (though they should find school “hard”) but in particular the common problem of competing motivations.  A simple and common illustration of this is the household rule, “homework before play.”  The parent sets boundaries in order to get the less desirable work of Algebra done before hours of “work” are put in on basketball.  Note: this is an issue of motivation because I can guarantee you the student will put forth more physical and character effort practicing their free throws than will be expended on quadratic equations, but they will “feel” as though the later was more difficult than the former.

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Engagement

I think the last note above leads right into the heart of this issue.  There is a point in school at which a student’s mind changes its view of whatever is at hand in the classroom to that of a delight rather than a chore.  The physics class falls away, with all its attendant details and difficulties as the newly lit light bulb of understanding the lesson transports the student to a moment when they no longer are considering anything other than this beautiful new idea.  They have forgotten the work for the pleasure of what the work has wrought.  This is the most compelling category of my question.  Whether the transport happens because of the genius of the teacher, or the nature of the student, or both, or neither, is for other considerations.  But the fact that truly engaged students, students who have moved into the reality of the lesson, forget the hardness for the wonder and awe, motivates me as a teacher to get them there if I can.

I regularly hear from students that school is hard.  It is said often in a way that implies they would like it to be easy.  I, as a student, commiserate with their wish.  But proper hardness and difficulty lead to winning the game at the free throw line with 2 seconds left, and finding that new idea to be beautiful and exciting and even transporting.  The blood, sweat, and tears are worth it.

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