Why I stopped saying something is easy or something is hard
Recently, I decided to monitor how I talk about learning some subject or topic, because of observing both of myself and other people what our reactions can be if I say that something is “easy” or something is “hard”. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are serious drawbacks to saying that something is “easy” or “hard”, and an entirely different vocabulary should be used in helping a learner. I haven’t figured out exactly what that vocabulary is, but I’ve seen too many times some really disastrous results from overusing labels such as “easy” or “hard”.
What’s “easy” anyway?
I never learned to drive stick shift in my youth. Therefore, when in recent years Abby tried to teach me to, I had a lot of trouble. She became impatient with me and started using phrases like “but it’s easy, you just do this”. These phrases were delivered in a way that sounded frustrated, and meanwhile, I knew it wasn’t “easy”, else I would be getting it. I finally gave up, giving the excuse that it wasn’t worth the trouble to go through hell to get this skill working, since my own car is an automatic anyway and I would have very little opportunity or reason to drive stick shift. But the real point is that learning became very stressful for me as I had to fight not only my multitasking physical clumsiness, but also this idea that I wasn’t able to do something “easy”. Part of me knew that rationally, I shouldn’t care about labels, but part of me also kept on saying silently, “You have no idea how hard this is for me. This is how you started learning to drive. You have no idea what I’m going through.”
I remember many other situations through my life where I was struggling with something supposedly “easy” and became very discouraged. In my youth, I may not have had quite as much metacognition to recognize that I shouldn’t necessarily give up (and I didn’t always give up), so it was particularly damaging when made fun of for not immediately grasping something “easy”, whether hitting a ball with a bat or racket, speaking English fluently, or using perfect grammar in my writing. In some cases, where I persevered, I not only “caught up” (there’s always some sense of “comparison” when someone uses the word “easy”), but excelled. In other cases, I just gave up, for decades (basically, anything athletic, I gave up before I finished elementary school), the shame was so great at being crappy at something “easy”.
There was even a perverse overreaction that sometimes kicked in. If I couldn’t do something “easy” (like draw in art class), I did the “sour grapes” thing and declared the subject stupid and not worth my time. I turned around and used “easy” as an excuse to make fun of those who could do it. And that leads to the dual problem of saying something is “hard”.
A harmful effect of the “easy”/“hard” classification is that it encourages us to play stupid status games in which nobody wins and everyone is hurt.
Here’s an example: it turned out that growing up, I found math “easy”. As a result, math became a convenient way for me to stay lazy about my perseverance and will to improve. I considered math, which was considered by many to be “hard”, as a way for me to impress and get approval (from those who thought math was “hard”). So I didn’t work very hard at math. Meanwhile, I just “gave up” on art and gym classes. I didn’t even try. All this because I got the idea that I was only punished for failing at stuff that was “easy” but rewarded for doing well at what was “hard”. I gravitated toward all kinds of “hard” academic subjects, for the sole purpose of boosting my self-esteem. This was a big mistake in the long run. Note that these subjects were not necessarily the ones that I was passionate about, or even truly talented at. They were they ones that somehow presented themselves as the “biggest prizes” and so I either secretly underworked at something I found easy or I put an inordinate amount of work into something “hard” for the wrong reasons.
Meanwhile, I saw my peers give up on all kinds of pursuits when by middle school it became apparent that some subjects were getting “harder” than others for them. This was sad. Often there was no rhyme or reason to what seemed “hard” or not: bad luck with a single terrible teacher in some random subject, for example, had massive impacts on the life paths of many of us. Whether it was a music class or one particular favored sport or game, I saw discouragement and disillusionment everywhere among everyone.
So marking something as “hard” not only discourages some people, but encourages others to play the game of racking up points solely by focusing on excelling at the “hard” for the sake of competition. This is such a waste.
Years of experience in learning many things I once thought were too hard for me have convinced me that every learner is different, and needs different motivations, contexts, kinds of help in order to achieve personal goals. In particular, not everyone is “ready” at any given time for something yet. And learning may come in unexpected spurts, sometimes sudden insight that comes after having been given enough encouragement to persist for a while even while struggling.
I’m not saying that learners cannot be irresponsible and lazy (I certainly sometimes am), but teachers should be aware that calling things “easy” or “hard” as a way to shame or encourage may well completely backfire, and there have to be better ways to concretely help learners make incremental progress at their own pace.
Think about your own learning and teaching experiences. Do you remember particularly negative or positive ones? How many involved some kind of “easy”/“hard” talk that caused demotivation? Or are you one who thrives on such labels, using them as a challenge?comments powered by Disqus