Smart is hard

Are we teaching the wrong way? (I mean, not you and me — I’m not teaching at all, and neither are you, probably.) A fascinating study (here) suggests that the old Puritan system was right after all: hard work brings rewards, what is easy is less valuable.

Or, to put it another (still Puritan, don’t worry, it’s me writing, after all) way: Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

Here’s the idea. A study has looked at two groups of students who were being taught the same material, over the same period of time, by the same person, with the only difference being that in one group the Powerpoint presentation or handouts were in a typefont that was difficult to read (hello Comic Sans! roll right up, Harlow Solid Italic! — I’d demonstrate, but apparently this blogsite has too much taste to permit me to type in these). The students who had the difficult-to-read presentations did far and away better than those who had the more accessible material.

This is not a plea for crap teaching. It is just a suggestion that spoon-feeding, making learning easy, is in fact making it harder. You can’t learn to play the piano without months of sounding awful. You can’t learn a language without slaving away at irregular verbs (unless you’re four years old). It makes no sense to think we can internalize the details of the Crimean War, or differential calculus, or how to make a soufflé, without working at it. Even playing keepy-uppy takes hours of dedicated practice. So why do we now assure ourselves, and our children, that only ‘fun’ stuff like football needs to be practised?

Working is the fun part. Isn’t it? (Takes off sober Puritan robes. Puts on glitzy Dorothy-on-her-way-to-Oz shoes.)

One thought on “Smart is hard

  1. Fascinating – and chimes neatly with a piece on BBC News today (see here)

    “A few years ago, Carol Dweck, a leading psychologist, took 400 students and gave them a simple puzzle.

    Afterwards, each of the students were given six words of praise. Half were praised for intelligence: “Wow, you must be really smart!” The other half were praised for effort: “Wow, you must be hard working!”

    Dweck was seeking to test whether these simple words, with their subtly different emphases, could make a difference to the student’s mindsets. The results were remarkable.

    After the first test, the students were given a choice of whether to take a hard or an easy test.

    A full two-thirds of the students praised for intelligence chose the easy task – they did not want to risk losing their “smart” label. But 90% of the effort-praised group chose the tough test – they wanted to prove just how hard working they were.

    Then, the experiment came full circle, giving the students a chance to take a test of equal difficulty to the first test.

    The group praised for intelligence showed a 20% decline in performance compared with the first test, even though it was no harder. But the effort-praised group increased their score by 30%. Failure had actually spurred them on. “

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