Friday, May 17, 2013

Calling Something Easy or Hard: the Transfat of Teaching

Have you ever had someone try to teach you how to do something and then say (perhaps through gritted teeth) something like, "I'm trying to make this as easy as possible for you." Did that work? Have you ever had a teacher say "look this is really easy" or a coach offer a technique drill and say "here's the really simple way to tie this knot." How did you feel? Perhaps you only noticed if you found that that explanation wasn't experienced as particularly simple, or easy or fun? What about the corollary where someone asserts "this stuff is hard" - and you thought, um, no, it's boring, tedious and unengaging, but it's not "hard."

is the interface of the piano easy or hard?
(question paraphrasing bill buxton on design)

I'm going to suggest that this easy/hard thing is the transfat of the coaching/teaching world: developed with the best of intentions, it's still a cheap substitute for the real thing and yes, increasingly considered harmful. I'm going to propose that, on the "considered harmful side" specifically that describing concepts to be learned in a lecture or coaching session or seminar as easy or hard does not help learning. Indeed, it may even inhibit it.


I'll warn you ahead of time: i've found no research in pedagogy directly to say that framing something as easy or hard is problematic, but i hope you'll walk through the arguments with me and perhaps consider the value of exploring an alternative framing to easy/hard. I'll propose that below, too.

By way of context, two things, first, why talk about this subject on b2d? Since so many of us reading b2d either coach, teach, or find ourselves in learning contexts around health, fitness, wellbeing, it seemed appropriate to situate this particular exploration here at b2d.  Second, the easy/hard description itself. It's very difficult (dare i say hard?) to look at any kind of challenging situation, perhaps quite a bit in athletics, and not see the space framed as hard or easy. We all, it seems, have an easy vs hard meter  running in our heads. Perhaps this meter has something to do with safety/threat response and protection.

When it comes to teaching, however, I question the value of framing a learning concept as easy or hard when presenting it to learners. There's a number of issues i'm going to work through below, but by way of context, calling something easy or hard out of the box asserts that a concept, a priori, has almost a set learnable state.  Is that really ever the case? Consider the existential assessment of Math Class by Barbie circa 1991 (video below and CBC overview video here -  check out the "did you know" tab - what's great are the girl math students' responses to this - story ends at 1:42  but the whole thing is historically interesting. anyway...).

some may remember the 1991 Barbie Recall for the infamous "math class is tough" 

To unpack easy or hard in a teaching context, let me unpack an example that i heard repeatedly the other day when observing grad students give a guest lecture to undergrads. The number of times i heard "i'm making this as easy as possible" felt legion. And each time i heard it i got more and more distressed - though i didn't have a clear sense of why at the time.

So what's wrong with "i'm making this as easy as possible for you" - Here's just a few possibilities. It seems that framing has two particularly negative impacts on the learning experience for the student (though it probably feels great for the teacher):

On the personal side:
  • for good or ill, the "i'm making this as easy as possible" puts the focus of attention on us and our sense of personal greatness and "teacher as star" rather than on the material at hand and the students' needs. Look at what we've done.
  • related to the above, surely it's our job to make material accessible to the audience to whom we're delivering it - at all times. So why draw attention to our struggle? Are we looking for praise? we want to be loved? need a hug? right then? because dam it getting this lecture cost us, boy. 
On the Content side:
  • is being "easy" a plus? easy can be boring
  • what if the person doesn't get what you think is the "easy" explanation? does that mean the problem is with them?  
Let me drill into a few of these a little more

The Personal: Self rather than Student as focus of attention? 
There are all sorts of noble reasons to say "i'm making this as easy as possible for you"
There are likely at least two positively motivated intensions and one unforced error in this "easy/hard" framing - we'll take them in turn:
  1. One is: please be aware of how important this topic is; i wouldn't have put all these cycles into crafting this experience if i didn't think it was valuable - so please, really pay attention.  
  2. The other thing going on is a kind of faux empathy: boy i sure had a hard time with this so i'm going to make it easier for you so you don't go through what i went through. 
  3. Maybe it's just inexperience. 
1. I worked REALLY hard for YOU. While the motivation of the first two about care and diligence is understandable, its effect potentially is a sucker punch kinda move. It's still looking for love in all the wrong places.
Drawing Attention to the Performer's Process - example. To paint a big picture, consider a grade two teacher teaching students in math how to carry the one in addition. What would we think if the teacher said to the students "it's taken me two years to really figure out how to teach you this cool way to build up numbers ... i've finally figured it out how to make it as easy as possible for you" Would we find that inappropriate? After all, if that was such a challenge, perhaps this is not the best person to be doing this job? 
Or similarly, would we be surprised if Hilary Hahn in the middle of a magnificent performance said now, i really want you to get that i'm making this next bit as easy for you to hear as possible because it's full of difficult changes that you might miss if i don't enunciate these special parts. And oh yeah, this wasn't easy for me, either. It took my 6 months of practice to get this just right - so - i really want you to appreciate it. Maybe, on a DVD of the performance, that kind of discussion would be great in voice over, but do we expect it during the performance? What makes the DVD voice over appropriate and the performance not?
2. Supposed Empathy and the cost of mis-predicting?
Back to our case. While the material may have been a challenge  for the given presenter to summarise effectively, it may actually not be that problematic for the class or at least some of the people in the class - especially if prep'd right for that group. So who might we insult with our presumption? Especially if our prep hasn't been bulletproofed? In other words, someone might be having a "hard time" with the material as presented because the presentation isn't as clear as we assume it to be.  Oh dear.

One other tick that was hideous to experience was the guest lecturer rushing through material by seeming to engage the class: "what's X" the teacher asks. Two people give an answer. "Right" says the instructor "super easy; piece o' cake...ok what's Y..." same thing. I'm watching a bunch of students going er, no, not a piece of cake - i don't even know what you're asking. What was interesting to observe was the next part of the analysis by students now not focusing on the material because they're derailed. Some thought the instructor was a git; others thought the problem was with them. In either case, the students were no longer engaged in the material.

If what we present actually results in students feeling confused or slow, and we've just called it easy,  what have we done by asserting this is as "easy" as it gets? That the student is just stupid? Or conversely  that we are idiots? What might either do to students' sense of engagement and commitment? Is it facilitated or inhibited?

Is there, therefore, any pedagogically valuable reason to assert that material being presented for students to learn is a priori easy or hard?

3. The Rookie Unforced Error "Teaching is Tough!"

The unforced error i saw a lot of today was really a rookie mistake: a less experienced teacher/coach may fall into feeling,  wow trying to find a way to convey this hard stuff so it's easy for you is really hard, but i did it - i must totally rule! you are so lucky to have me as your teacher today.

Dude, that's just teaching. That's your JOB. As teachers/coaches, we're supposed to make the path clear to learn what needs to be learned at that time and in that place. And yes, that's what the best teachers do every class, every lecture, every talk, every coaching session.

It's work and there are skills - skills make certain parts of the task less challenging (dare i say easier) so other bits can be attended: just ask any starting out prof how long it takes to prep a course the first time they do it vs the fifth time (i did not say the second third or fourth).

It's this self-consciousness, this drawing a group's attention away from the material and to our process - this meta-teaching,  that kept being expressed in the classes yesterday, that painted the big ROOKIE sign that reads: 1) haven't had to do this teaching thing too much (rookie) (2) i like teaching (awesome! need more great teachers) or (3) i think i succeed in here because i make people like/appreciate me.

But is that meta-teaching where the learning we want to happen at?

Flow vs Hard/Easy
As an alternative to framing something as hard/easy, we might want to check if we have helped students achieve Flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and colleagues developed the notion of Flow based on work to explore the propoerties of task or process engagement, (overview). The attributes of Flow are based around skill and challenge:
flow state as challenge vs skill (source) 

"Easy as possible" would be placed potentially at low skill, low challenge. According to Csikszentmihaly's research, that condition results in apathy. So is striving to make things as easy as possible an optimal strategy to create engagement for learning?

Finding Flow
I've thought sometimes it's not always possible to find flow when learning something new: sometimes we just have to suck it up and do the reps. But i've come not to believe that: that there is skill and flow in each rep if we give those reps the appropriate attention to wrestle from them what we need to learn.

If we go to the problems with a target, so we know what we plan to discover from each bit, we can get pretty flow-ish. The challenge there is that that kind of process takes time and attention, and sometimes we're in a hurry to get IT whatever the It is.

What i've found in my own practice is that if i'm too tired to bring that kind of attention to a learning task, i need to reenergise and maybe do something else, and come back. Rarely does rote dogged determination result in an "ah ha" But that's another topic - just suggesting that in my own practice flow can be developed for our path choices when we learn how to break something down for deliberate practice. This point as i've written about before is where a coach can really help with that process of assessment for attention.

Teaching for Flow
This isn't the place to go into pedagogical methods. Suffice it to say that good, experienced teachers have many reps at finding a good flow state in a class. They have taken time to reflect on pedagogy however and to explore techniques for engaging with students. Pedagogy is a considerable field of enquiry. They learn new skills. While some folks wing it, some folks actually consider formally what techniques help progress learning. They treat teaching as a professional practice and as an evolving approach. As pedagogical scientists they consider variables from room condition to gender to preparation to social background to the subject itself. Complex, eh?

The result of their diligence, however, is that students stay engaged. When they leave the classroom, the students are not thinking what a bravara performance by the teacher, but what they can do now that they couldn't do before.

It takes more work from the teacher to figure out how to do these things, but what we see watching their work is that words like easy and only if ever rarely used to describe the learning process, and few will draw attention to themselves instead of the material.

If you're interested in learning teaching techniques, talk with your favorite teachers, as you would seek out coaches; look to journals of same. There are so many models that challenge the notion of a lecture itself for optimal learning, for instance, that if we're in a lecture setting, we need to ask why: whose interests for what ends is it serving (universities are still largely lecture based).  And i'm not even talking about all these bits. Just about one phrase in a learning context. So let's get back to that.

Falling into Easy or Hard: Warning Signs for Confidence and Self-State
Despite the many variables of pedagogical practice, for the specific example of "i've made this as easy as possible for you" there are a few heuristics we've looked at that challenge the value of ever saying anything about easy or hard in any teaching environment.  In particular the key idea that would be "hard" to debate is simply that when teaching, the focus is the material, the students, the uptake,  not us and how hard we've worked to deliver what people are paying us to deliver, eh? Given that, and given the assumption that most of us teaching actually want nothing but the best for our students, we might be able to use falling into Easy or Hard as warning lights for our own practice

  1. - Red Alert/action item: mastery: when we hear ourselves saying anything with easy/hard in it in a teaching context, perhaps that's an opportunity to interrogate why we think we're going there. For who's benefit? And is that the best way to achieve the result we want, given the risks it brings? Most of the time going to easy or hard means we still have work to do, and we're not as comfy, as satisfied with that part of the material's delivery as we'd like to be.
  2. - Red Alert 2: take a break: if we're bailing to a meta-lecture, to talk about the process of this part of the lecture rather than the stuff itself, maybe it's time for a break; we ourselves need coffee or air or something, because we now have a new sign that we're falling off task, losing the plot. Maybe it is challenging material for us to track, so make sure our fuel levels are good to go.

In other words: if i feel i'm having a "this is hard" moment on anything - i know to check how rested, fuelled  energised i feel. IF i'm saying this is now easy, or "as easy as possible" (big "hard" undercurrents there), i need to check in what i'm trying to achieve by making this claim at this time.

OVERALL: reducing if not eliminating the transfat of teaching.
The question this post is asking beyond teaching is, in the main, to consider the concept of Hard and Easy. As the song about war goes, what good is it -  in teaching, in life in motivation? Yup, i suggest that Hard/Easy is the transfat of education  - it's the cheap substitute for finding the Real Deal of Challenge, Engagement, Confidence, Security, Mastery.  A little crap in our diets is probably not horrible, and given our lives, is from time to time perhaps inevitable  but i hope i've made the case for why reducing it (if not all out eliminating it) may lead to far better results.



ps this is not a perfect essay - it's been written in fits and starts as i can grab time - but was keen to get it out - which is the advantage of a blog over a formal research piece: it's a great place to put work in progress.

Related Posts

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails