In Natural Born Learners, Alex Beard talks about his first term as a new, fresh faced English teacher in the borough of Elephant and Castle – one of the poorest and most diverse areas of London.
Beard was convinced that his passion for Shakespeare, Jane Austen and TS Eliot would rub off on the disadvantaged kids of Walworth School and he would soon be elevated to the ranks of Mr Keating – Robin Williams’ inspiring character in Dead Poets Society.
It didn’t go well. He was met with misbehaviour, refusal to work and constant requests to go to the toilet.
Yet Beard persisted and slowly the students began to pay attention and complete activities. On good days, they even managed to discuss ideas.
When Beard marked their workbooks at the end of the term he was struck with a sinking feeling that confirmed what he already knew deep down. His students hadn’t learned anything. They’d answered worksheets, completed character profiles and produced word tables – but these were repetitive tasks designed to ward off misbehaviour and inattention. The realisation forced Beard to step back and ask another question; what is the nature of learning?
It’s an important question in a world in which ‘user-friendly’, ‘fun’ and ‘engaging activities’ are synonymous with ease and encouraged along by behemoths like Facebook who deal in the ‘attention economy.’
If we accept that intelligence is not fixed and that all students are capable of learning, then we’d do well to remember what we say to ourselves when confronted with new difficulties; that we are on a ‘steep learning curve.’
The case for framing real learning around difficulty, struggle and discipline is not hard to make. Consider the following list of seminal thinkers from yesterday and today:
- Carol Dweck, famous for the growth mindset, talks about the grade ‘not yet’ which implies that with effort and support, students will eventually get there.
- John Hattie argues that without an appropriate level of challenge, students will not achieve any progress in their learning. He defines par as a year’s growth for a year’s input.
- Lev Vygosty talks about the zone of proximal development – a bridge between what we already know and the support required to attain new knowledge or skills.
- Professor Robert Bjork argues that learning should be infused with ‘desirable difficulties.’
- Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise.
- Guy Claxton talks about the need to ‘build learning power’ so that students can develop appropriate habits of mind to cope with uncertainty and change throughout life.
At a time when our ecological and technological future demands we harness all the creativity, intelligence and potential available to solve the problems facing humanity, it is not time to shrink away from the central fact that learning is difficult.
And that’s the point.