The first principle in my new course (rolling out this month; enroll today for access to first-cohort exclusives like “Ask DSJ Anything” Q&As) is that “Learning is Hard.” According to cognitive science, this isn't just an ethos or belief or classroom poster (below) or culture.
Nope — it's more than talk. It's just how the mind works. For school stuff to go from outside of us, through the funnel of attention, through the scarce resource of working memory, and into long-term memory, work is required. Specifically, the work of:
- Attending to the to-be-learned material
- Thinking about the material you're paying attention to
- Working with that material over time so that it becomes useful and powerful
It's a lot like getting stronger in a gym. Yeah, you can go, you can do whatever exercise you feel like, you can stop when it gets hard, you can change your workout regimen whenever it suits your druthers.
But if you do those things, you won't grow. At least, not much. And you'll definitely not attain new levels of mastery.
In the Principles of Learning Course, I help colleagues unpack what this means for us, practically, as teachers. “Okay, learning is hard. So…what do I do with that?”
But today, I want to share a bit of Five Key Beliefs wisdom from my dude, Jim Harbaugh. In the Harbaugh family growing up, Jim's dad had a saying he'd use to help his children re-interpret hardship. When the kids had do something hard, like shovel snow or walk to school while dribbling a basketball, Mr. Harbaugh would say to them, “Hey, kids — who's got it better than us?”
The expected response? “Nobody!”
To the UofM faithful, this has become a meme since Jim started coaching at Michigan.
A big problem with expecting your students to do hard things in school is that…well, they're hard. They involve stress, pressure, difficulty, uncertainty. In the moment, practicing the must-know dates list, the skill of note-taking, the target language, the scientific method — it's uncomfortable.
And when that discomfort meets a student who firmly believes (as many do) that discomfort is to be avoided, that when discomfort is present, something is wrong in the world — well, then you've got a clash between BELIEF and CIRCUMSTANCE. And when humans experience this clash, you know what typically wins, don't you?
It's not the circumstance. It's the belief.
So, what are we to do? Things that can seem silly sometimes — things like asking “Who's got it better than us?” or hanging a “Do hard things” poster in front of your classroom.
But the thing is, these things aren't silly. When done repetitively, they begin to move that most unmovable of human forces: belief.
When done with enough loving relentlessness, these things create outcomes that seem impossible at the outset — things like winning a national championship or just working at your math problems with attention, care, and effort.
It's hard work, colleague. But man, so fun.
Who's got it better than us teachers?