Struggle and success

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Albert Camus

The gods of ancient Greece punished Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, for his hubris by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he got it to the top. One can only imagine that Sisyphus was not a happy chap.

Pushing a boulder up a hill with no prospect of ever reaching the top has become the very image of futility. Most people only persist with something difficult when they believe success is possible. Students are no different. It’s pointless having the expectation that students will work hard to get top grades if they are unable to see how this might be achieved. Success and struggle must be balanced.

Since first writing about Robert & Elizabeth Bjork’s concept of ‘desirable difficulties‘ back in 2013, I’ve thought a lot about what the phrase means and how best to explain it. The sorts of difficulties the Bjorks have studied are designed to reduce performance during instruction in order to increase retention and transfer over the longer term. These desirable difficulties include allowing students to forget some of the material covered before it’s reintroduced (spacing) mixing up different content in order to prevent students developing the illusion of knowledge (interleaving) asking questions about material which has already been covered rather than restudying it in order to prevent students developing a false sense of familiarity and fluency (retrieval practice) varying the conditions in which instruction takes place in order to prevent contextual cues from building up and making it harder for students to transfer what they’ve learned to new contexts (variation) and progressively reducing the frequency and quantity of feedback given in order to prevent students from becoming dependent on external sources of expertise.

There’s something of a vgue for failure at the moment. I’ve noticed that when talking to teachers about these things, the message sometimes gets misinterpreted as just making work more difficult, or as justification for not helping students when they struggle. Some people seem to beleive that students should be forced to get things wrong and cope with unacheivable tasks. This is, I think, a mistake.

Struggle is worthwhile because it’s the only way in which we improve. When we stop struggling we reach a plateau beyond which we don’t improve. We may think we’re getting better, but we’re probably just becomingly increasingly confident. Developing mastery or expertise requires concentration; we must think about what we’re doing. As soon as we’re able to perform a task on autopilot, we’re no longer learning.

The problem is that struggling isn’t much fun. Most people prefer the feeling of being able to fluently perform a task at a lower level of expertise than pushing themselves to be better. If students just struggle this is probably undesirable. If students struggle too much, or too soon, this will also be undesirable. Struggle is, I think, only desirable after success has been encoded. What I mean by this is that most students will find it demotivating to struggle at something if they see little hope of success, but if they have a clear mental representation of what success looks and feels like, they’re more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty.

So, what I advocate is teaching that begins with the express purpose of encoding success: clear explanations, careful modelling of high expectations, well-structured scaffolding to ensure students experience success and guided practice with lots of feedback. Only then, when students have experienced some measure of success, should we introduce struggle.

At this point, the aim of instruction should shift to promoting internalisation. Students will only be independent when they have the means to accomplish a task within themselves. If they’re relying on something outside themselves, they’ll never master challenging content. Once success is encoded, students should be ready to have some of the scaffolding we’ve used to artificially boost their performance removed. They’re ready for less detailed, less frequent feedback on their progress and, hopefully, they’re ready for increasingly independent practice. All this will mean that it’s more difficult for students to perform well in class, but because they have a mental representation of success, they’re better able to contend with difficulties. That said, if at any point they look to be struggling too much, the best thing to do is to restore some of the support and offer clearer feedback. The point is not that students should sink or swim, it’s that they should all swim.

Introducing struggle should always be balanced against students’ sense of self efficacy. too much struggle is likely to backfire: what they’re most likely to learn is that they’ve reached a limit beyond which they’re not capable of improving. They’ll either decide to settle for a more achievable seeming target or give up entirely because they don’t want to feel stupid. Instead, they need to believe that improvement is possible through their own efforts. Only when we believe improvement is possible do we put up with having to struggle.

In summary, the message is that introducing struggle is important and valuable, but risky. If you get it wrong students won’t enjoy your lessons and will probably give up. If you never make them struggle at all they may well develop an unrealistic view of their own ability and may well believe they’re better than they actually are. So, it may help to follow these three steps:

  1. Encode success
  2. Promote internalisation
  3. Increase challenge

9 Responses to Struggle and success

  1. Yasmine says:

    What would this look like, for example, when students are anslysing poetry?

    • David Didau says:

      First I would explain my interpretation of the poem, its context, language etc. Then I’d share an example of an excellent analysis (probably one I’d written myself) and talk about what it was doing and why it was particularly good. Next I’d tell the students that they were all going to write essays of a similar quality with my support. I’d use scaffolded interventions at the point of speech to help them think and speak in academic language (see here and then help them write and hone a written responses (see here Throughout the process I’d be quizzing them on their knowledge of the poem.

      I’d then take the scaffolding away and prompt them to write to the quality of the mental representations we’ve established. (see here If they were struggling too much, I’d restore some of the scaffolding until they were confident and then remove it again as soon as possible to encourage them to remember how to do it independently. I’d continue quizzing them on their knowledge of the poem and give them lots of practice of writing independently of increasing duration, reminding them of their exemplar work and refocussing them on excellence.

      As soon as they’re relatively comfortable I’d teach them new poems with decreasing levels of support until they were able to write high quality essays independently.

      Does that help?

  2. Liz says:

    This was really interesting. Thank you – I will be using these steps in my unit planing.
    I have been thinking about how we challenge out students to challenge themselves. I have always attempted to normalise struggle -after a challenging activity, we discuss how we feel. Seeing and hearing others’ who are struggling helps students’ sense that what they are experiencing as normal and part of a process. This reduced the risk of students giving up, and reminding them of earlier struggles (that were now part of their process) helped show progress too.

    So I will be adding an additional step – normalise and reflect on challenge – probably before increase challenge.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    I’ve never been convinced by the arguement that pupils need to struggle in order to learn. Thinking back to your excellent post about using improving pupils’ knowledge bases to enable them to ‘hack’ limitations in working memory, it would seem that pupil’s ability to learn is enhanced by the effortless recall of a wide range of well-developed schema.

    No doubt my attitudes have been strongly influenced by my experience teaching basic literacy skills, an activity which has little if anything to do with ‘higher-order’ skills. My sole instructional objective was to make learning as effortless as possible–‘struggle’ of any kind whatever was evidence of over-ambitious teaching objectives. One of the key priniciples of the trade was that if something could be misconstrued, pupils would inevitably do so–and this not only wasted time and mental energy, but was actually counter-productive in that the errors had to be un-learned. We already spent huge amounts of effort un-doing the errors which kids had ‘discovered’ on their own in conventional primary classrooms. I could retire if I had a pound for every time I’ve corrected the misspelling ‘thay’.

    This said, I’m all for making kids work hard. A visit to Michaela Community School ought to be enough to convince the most sceptical observer that children thrive on a demanding knowledge-rich curriculum. But I fear that ‘struggle’ is usually a result of trying to push kids up Bloom’s pyramid prematurely. Returning to your earlier post that I cited, this was a good example of how a well-thought out exposition can take the learner down a path that might seem counter-intuitive (at least to anyone who’s experienced ITT and CPD) and made it easy to understand. All learning is pretty much the same: the more you learn, the more you can learn–so why slow kids down? Challenges should be finely calibrated so pupils can move up the ladder with confidence.

    Or perhaps I could put it another way: a reporter was with a special forces soldier in a Land Rover in some god-forsaken part of the highlands, and the soldier fancied a brew. So he stopped, gathered some heather, and took the fuel line off the carburettor (this happened some time ago!) and got enough petrol to set the heather blazing. The reporter was bemused, and said that he thought that special forces were trained to start fires by rubbing two sticks together. The soldier replied that this was indeed true, but they were also trained never to do anything the hard way.

  4. tonyparkin says:

    Good to see gamification of learning nicely explained via this ‘three bears’ concept of struggle. The key to successful game and learning design is to set the level of difficulty just right. Make the challenge too easy, and the game/learning is boring and unstimulating. Set the bar too high, and the participant retires defeated, and is not encouraged to make it to the next level. Of course the accompanying challenge is personalisation, as these thresholds will be different for each child in the classroom.

  5. […] my view, the role of feedback is probably crucial in balancing the twin pressures of struggle and success, so it’s worth thinking a bit harder as to exactly what we mean when to talk about […]

  6. […] None of these things require much in the way of thinking especially hard. This matters because,  our understanding of how learning occurs affects the approaches we use to teach and design a curriculum.  This means we need to be really clear about the differences between learning and performance; just because students seem to be making progress in our lessons does not mean that they will retain what they’ve learned or that they will be able to effectively transfer it to other contexts. Whilst we want students to perform well in exams – and in life – this depends on creating effective ‘mental models’. Counter-intuitively, the kind of practice which seems to best build these models is not the same as expert performance. I still think struggle has a place in our efforts to design effective teaching sequences, but this must be undertaken with a lot of thought and a fair bit of caution. I’ve outlined these ideas in my post Struggle and success. […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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