Easy is easy, hard is hard

Recently, I had the ill luck to be present for a friend’s five-year-old daughter’s birthday party. To add to the naturally generated mayhem of putting 30 small children in a space with fizzy drinks and sweets, my friend had shelled out on a children’s entertainer called Johnny G – or something along those lines. Johnny has nailed down a repertoire certain to appeal to the unsophisticated palettes of the very young; he has an impressive array of fart and burp gags and makes very creative use of the word ‘poo’. The kids loved him and their delighted shrieks echoed his every flatulent utterance. One of the attendant mothers turned to me and said, wincing, “Good, isn’t he?”

Although I nodded politely, I didn’t think was all that good. Making five-year-olds squeal with delight by burping doesn’t require all that much. Honestly, he’d have been hard pressed not to over-excite them. It struck me that doing things that are easy is, well, easy. Maybe there are some adults who would struggle to get that kind of reaction; there are certainly more than a few who wouldn’t care to try. Like everything else, this sort of act is probably a bit harder than it look, but still. I’m not saying Johnny G is entirely bereft of talent or artistry, but he’s set himself a pretty low bar.

Now, if he’d managed to get them all quiet and concentrating then that really would have been impressive. Going against the grain is always trickier and the natural expectation for any children’s party is the there will be fun and cake and party bags. I think it’d probably be a mistake to set yourself against the natural order of things by getting children to do some sums or write a story, but choosing any activity that required quiet and calm would be harder to achieve. Some years back, my youngest daughter announced that she’d like a sewing party and, keen not to disappoint, we duly booked a slot for 10 girls in a craft shop with a sensible older lady called Janet, who patiently showed them how to stitch quilts or some such. Whilst this wasn’t an activity to which I felt naturally drawn, I remember being impressed with the aura of pacific calm she exuded. I admit, these were nice girls and predisposed to enjoy a bit sewing but even so, her aura was like a felt blanket; stifling excitement, but warm, safe and comforting.  This, it occurs to me now, takes considerably more skill than pretending to blow off and checking yourself for ‘whoopsies’.

There’s an obvious parallel with teaching. Some teachers are great at whipping up students into a fever pitch of excitement, others perform Jedi mind tricks. Some teachers crack jokes, wear leather jackets and encourage their students to refer to them by some sort of cool nick name. Others, are focussed on the hard yards of learning things which, while they might not be fun, are important and useful. Some teachers are strict, some are laid back; some are keen to make up engaging games, others hammer away at mastering basic skills and tricky concepts. I’m not suggesting a dichotomy here – but I do think all teachers could places their priorities on these continuums:While I’m sure we would all vary our positions depending on mood, time of day, the children in front of us and a host of other imponderables, we still gravitate more to left or right. When I first entered the profession I made a self-conscious attempt to be more to the right and got nowhere. The kids ignored me and did as they pleased. In desperation I tried to be more laid back and fun and, bit by bit, they began to respond, My teacher persona edged increasingly away from Janet and more towards Johnny G. This played well with school leaders who frowned at detentions and were irritated at being called to deal with disturbances. The prevailing view was that a good teacher could run a room without support. It didn’t really matter whether anyone learned anything as long as everyone looked ‘engaged’.

There were times when I’d have to exert my inner Janet and insist everyone got down to do a bit of work and, as long as these intervals were relatively infrequent, most of my students would go along with what I wanted most of the time. They knew there’d be a ‘fun lesson’ in the not too distant future. Over the years, with age and experience, I got better and better at this juggling act. In addition, as I was promoted I acquired more status within the schools I worked; children began to expect to have to work in my lessons. I became increasingly able to channel my inner Janet far more often than I had to resort to Johnny G. Working hard became the norm and having fun became incidental. Maybe this echoes your own career trajectory?

The point is this: it’s a lot easier to do what’s easy. Doing what’s hard – maintaining discipline and insisting on high standards – takes enormous effort and, especially when you’re new, determined support. As the pendulum has swung away from the bad old days of Christine Gilbert’s tenure as Chief Inspector of the child-centred inquisition, and explicit instruction has regained some measure of acceptability, schools aren’t forced to rely of the Johnny Gs of the teaching world. Suddenly it’s OK to be more like Janet. But, if we don’t want to leave teachers’ development to chance, if we value calm, ordered classrooms and students working hard to master a culturally rich curriculum then we must provide the support for teachers to be strict and to value hard work. If instead we view teacher’s development as some sort of Darwinian Hunger Games then we’ll ensure that many of the potential Janets are hounded out of the profession before they get a chance to properly establish themselves and our schools will be run by kind, well-meaning, ineffectual child minders and apologists for low expectations.

31 Responses to Easy is easy, hard is hard

  1. howardat58 says:

    I think that Johnny G works really hard to create fun.

  2. Steve Higgins says:

    Always enjoy your blog, but disagree with the fun/ hard work dichotomy. I’d put “fun” and “serious” as the opposites.

    There is an approach to understanding motivational states (styles) by Apter which you may well not like (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reversal_theory) as it has echoes of learning styles, but I like the focus on flipping between states ( for example “Telic” (or “Serious”) and “Paratelic” (or “Playful”). There is some empirical evidence (though not bomb-proof), but I think it resonates with the experiences of many teachers.

    The way I see it through the lens of the theory, each class has a default state (a ‘negotiated consensus’ between the teacher and the class), which as a teacher you are trying to push towards the serious, conforming, sympathy (i.e. put up with teacher control) and ‘other” (i.e. not just all about them). The default state keeps snapping you back as you try different approaches to keep them focused on learning…

    • David Didau says:

      It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a continuum. I was pretty clear about that. I think the playful/serious continuum is an interesting addition but not the same as what I was trying to get at. Thanks, D

      • Terry says:

        Thanks for an interesting post. My natural reaction would also be to see Janet’s work as hard and Johnny as easy, but also realise that maybe I’m just projecting my own preferences.

        On the continuum. Although you state they are no dichotomy, indeed you can have both, there is a difference between the 4 you present. Number 2 and 3 arguably have, as should be, two opposing elements on the continuum. Normally a continuum would suggest you have either ‘more’ or ‘less’ of one or the other end, say ranging from 0 to 100%

        However, and I think this might be what Steve is hinting at, numbers 1 and 4 are no opposing choices and therefore having to choose on being ‘more’ or ‘less’, whilst you might have a lot of fun AND work hard is reasonable. The same with relevant, engaging, challenging, culturally rich.

  3. coejooper says:

    Very interesting. Engagement as poor proxy for learning again. I worry that trainee primary teachers are praised for the fun/engagement approach and, as you say, not given the right time/resources to develop strictness/high expectations before they’re out-interviewed and overrun by the demands of the job. Johnny G probably only does one party a day – ‘fun’ is exhausting to maintain over a teaching day, week and career.

    • I’m not sure if it’s the result of teacher training. Lortie (the sociologist of teaching) notes how important our interactions with students are, as rewards of the job. If the profession has a “fun” problem (is the issue widespread? I have no perspective on this), then the problem is a result of teachers naturally chasing the buzzes that we enjoy. Some teachers enjoy creating memorable, fun experiences for students. It makes us feel good.

      These are short term highs, though, and there are richer rewards waiting for a teacher who can help kids learn material deeply.

      • David Didau says:

        Teaching should not be about making teachers feel good. This is a highly unethical approach to a serious profession.

        • Well, yeah, I take teaching seriously.

          You turned an observation about what is true into a statement about what ought to be true. I wasn’t saying teaching should be about making teachers feel good — rather that teachers do end up pursuing things that feel good to them.

          • David Didau says:

            Taking teaching seriously is in opposition to pursuing things that feel good to you. This is entirely the wrong way round. By all means enjoy doing what is best for students and take pleasure in their progress but do what you enjoy in your own time.

          • David, I’m not sure why you’re missing the point here. I’m not saying that, as a teacher, you should be guided by what feels good to you. I’m simply pointing out that many teachers do this, and that this (rather than poor teacher training) is the reason many teachers pursue what’s fun.

        • Michael Pye says:

          That’s a bit harsh David, It wasn’t what he was saying. It was a reasonable observation that we all (teachers included) have a tendency to repeat behaviours we enjoy. Within reason it is not even undesirable as long as it is used to reinforce good practice. Employers who enjoy their job are obviously useful as long as we don’t have an undue opportunity cost.

  4. This is a good point. (I’m sort of clueless about teaching life in the UK, but nobody wants to be the teacher in a nutty crazy wild room where you can’t pay attention. Some days my classes are like that, and I hate those days.)

    I remember when I started out teaching, my classroom was wild, and I told myself that there was an upside to this: at least I’d know when learning was happening. Sure, it was loud, but on good days it was good loud; I had no illusions about what students were learning.

    Now, my classroom is (usually!) quieter, or at least calmer and more structured. When there is loud talking it’s (usually) math talk.

    I wonder, though, if early me was on to something. Maybe one of the particular challenges of having an orderly classroom is hiding some of what students are thinking about from the teacher. This requires us to increase the sort of mid-class tasks that show what students are thinking about. (Of course, this is good for learning too.)

    I also like Doug Lemov’s contributions to this discussion. He makes it clear that being all-serious doesn’t need to be no fun, or joyless. Firm, warm, serious, joyous — these are not contradictions.

    Thanks for the post!

    • David Didau says:

      A quiet, orderly classroom is one where it’s much easier for the teacher to find out what individual students are thinking. Quiet and orderly should not be conflated with silence. If students behaviour is good, then discussions and grouped tasks are much more likely to be effective.

  5. Mario says:

    What’s your opinion on the Montessori Method?

  6. This blog describes my teaching career quite accurately.

  7. Rick says:

    I think that authenticity plays a huge part of this. My personality simply isn’t strict. Therefore, if I try and play the Janet they see straight through me.

    What I aim for is a laid back atmosphere that is still purposeful. I could never be called strict but I have been praised for my high expectations. I expect them to listen – not because I’ll punish them, but because what I’m offering is interesting, enjoyable, accessible and important. Kids learn with me mostly because they like my lessons. But that doesn’t mean the content is dumbed down.

    As you say, it’s a continuum. You don’t have to be strict to have high expectations and challenging content.

    The biggest factor, though, is what works for you. One of my colleagues could no more crack jokes and muck about anymore than I could keep a classroom utterly silent. Both of us get results. If either of us switched roles, I suspect we’d find that part of our teaching persona so hard that the content and information would slip and our results would go down.

    • David Didau says:

      Are you conflating strict with punishment? You can crack jokes and still be strict. If your “personality simply isn’t strict” this is where a good behaviour system can help. My problem with your position is that if teachers are laid back, high standards cannot be maintained. You don’t *have* to be strict to have expectations and assign challenging content but you do have to be strict if students are going to get on with meeting your standards.

  8. Sergej Visser says:

    Hi Dave. As a teacher, I strive to include everything you’ve mentioned in each lesson.

    I need students to be engaged and so to enjoy the lessons AND work hard (these two often correlate: when students work hard and learn much, they enjoy that).

    My teaching is explicit, but I don’t teach constantly – they work on tasks, individually & in coöperation, and learn implicitly from that too. Discipline in my classes depends on the activity – very strict when I give instructions / explanations, more lax when they work in groups – as long as they’re still working hard. And the content of my lessons / courses is as relevant, engaging, challenging etc. as possible.

    This makes teaching complicated (challenging, interesting, fun): a teacher needs to be able to do the “easy” thing – engaging students – AND the “hard” thing – making them work hard and learn lots in a disciplined and orderly way. It’s the package, not the parts.

    One more thought. I am also a songwriter. A hit song is usually very simple – four chords, lots of repetition, plain yet catchy, accessible and recognizable & unique in its own rights. Simple as it may seem, it’s still bloody difficult to write a great hit song. Would you have been able to amuse a group of 30 5-year-olds, the way Johnny G did? It may well have been common, simple, plain – but it may not be all that easy. So I’m not sure the words “easy” and “difficult” hit the mark here.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Sergy

      “Would you have been able to amuse a group of 30 5-year-olds, the way Johnny G did?” Yes. It’s REALLY easy. Would I have been able to do it in a way which wasn’t awful? Maybe not, that might have taken some skill.

      I don’t agree that engagement leads to hard work, I think the relationship is reversed: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/does-engagement-actually-matter/

      As I explained in the post, doing the easy thing is easy and should not concern us much. As long as students work hard and achieve high standards I don’t think we should be concerned about whether they’re enjoying themselves.

  9. Rick says:

    Depends what you mean by strict, I suppose.

    No-one has ever suggested I’m strict. But I don’t have a particular problem with behaviour (though the school doesn’t in general).

  10. nancy says:

    This is really interesting – and a couple of things sprang to mind which I shall jot down (you always make me think, damn you, even when I don;t agree with you haha).

    1. In a previous existence, I did a stint as a children’s party entertainer (no costumes) and, as you rightly point out, there are parallels with teaching in that you are managing groups of children – but there are significant differences, the first and most important being that you are always working with over excited littlies who you don;t know, so your activities need to be generic.

    2. The party entertainer has to sell themselves and what they do to the adults who will pay, so outward appearances of fun will need to be obvious.

    3. Good party entertainers can adapt (you see this with magicians when they come across children who have seen it all before and keep explaining how it works or make comments like, ‘the wand it going to go wobbly now’) – bad ones can’t (so I think that comes down to knowledge of your material).

    4. Making sure that excited children have fun and stay safe in an unknown environment is quite hard.

    5. For both teachers and party entertainers, a real test is if you can snap off the excitement at will e.g. explaining the rules of a game – you don’t want children fighting during the party.

    6. Learning doesn’t have to either be in a classroom or to be still, as it were, to occur.

    7. Teachers (or ex-teachers) are the best party entertainers for children, because they can do all of these things. It’s a joy to watch.

  11. […] There is often a significant pressure felt by teachers to overtly demonstrate that the students in their care are visibly engaged.  One of the simplest ways to achieve this is by capitalising on the dispositions and preferences outlined by Geary – activities that require plenty of discussion and very little extended writing usually work well.  However, the truth remains that just because students are busy and engaged, it doesn’t mean that they are learning.  Ultimately, it’s far easier – for students and teachers alike – to do what’s easy.  This is something that David Didau explores in a recent blog post. […]

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