When is harder easier?

Posted: October 11, 2013 in Exercise, Learning, Mental Reboot, Physical Reboot, Teaching
Tags: , , , ,

I just started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants and while I don’t usually blog about a book until I’ve finished it I think it may have provided an answer to one of the more difficult problems I’m having in my volunteer teaching gig.

I’m having difficulty designing lessons that are challenging to the students that pick things up the fastest while not so challenging that I lose those that are having a harder time absorbing information.   While the school I’m teaching at isn’t fully an “alternative school” it is certainly a place where students that have been difficulty in a more traditional context land either by their choice or their parents.  I don’t have the experience to know if that makes the range of study skill, motivation, and foundation knowledge is wider than in a more traditional school, but it is really the range of all of those things is very wide amongst my students.

So one of the early examples in David and Goliath is a very short IQ test that involves 3 questions each of which is reasonably simple, but has a bit of a trick to it.  When people take this test ‘cold’ they often don’t think it through deeply enough to get the trick.  But some Ivy League types did an experiment where they gave a bunch of students the test written out in a barely legible font and the students that took that version of the test did significantly better on the test than those that took an easily read version.  The claim is that this was a case of making something a little bit harder makes it easier.

So as I was sweating through morning yoga, I started thinking about how this applies to things that I do.  And (since I was in yoga), the first place I looked was there.  Yoga also has a couple of additional advantages in that in the form I take, there are students of all levels being taken at the same time, and (unlike computer science, which is what I’m teaching) there can be no argument made that yoga is something that came easily to me. As I was saying, in yoga this morning, it occurred to me that there were several things in that very class that made it more difficult.  The yoga teacher, while obviously very experienced, had such a heavy accent that I had to strain to parse her instructions.  I strained a muscle in my neck a couple of weeks ago (as far as I can tell, by sleeping wrong) and being the cautions type that I am, this was my first class post strain so I was being very careful not to re-injure it.  And there were teachers in training running some of the exercises who were getting their rights and lefts mixed up.  The sum of all of which was that I had to concentrate much more than usual in that class than I normally do.  And I believe that on a less than scientific basis, I can confirm the hypothesis that I learned more in that class than a normal one where I’m not worried about an injury and there isn’t anything about the teacher(s) that’s making class particularly difficult.

All of that’s great, but how can I apply it in my classroom?  Well, I think I kind of did accidently and not to effectively already.  One of the experiences that I think I am subconsciously drawing on when writing assignment questions is the years of job interviewing that I’ve done on the interviewer side of the desk.  One of the aspects of a good interview question in my opinion is that it’s ambiguous enough that it requires the interviewee to ask clarifying questions.  I’m pretty sure I’ve done that on my in class assignments.  (How many of you know what a squarell or a spirograph is?)

Wait, you say, giving students ambiguous questions is going to help them?  Well, probably not the way that I did it in accidentally.  But now that I’m thinking this through in more detail, I think that if I make the questions very clear that get the students up to a ‘B’ level (don’t get me started on the actually grading process that the school district uses, it’s more similar to encryption algorithms than anything else I am familiar with), but then leave some room for creativity for the questions that bring a student up to an ‘A’ or would count towards extra credit I might be in a position to keep pacing for multiple levels of students working at the same time.  And maybe even the students that are currently struggling will benefit from some harder is easier effect.

But of course then I get back to the issue of figuring out what is ambiguous to a 15 year old who’s been programming for six weeks that might seem completely clear to someone who’s been programming for over twice as long as they’ve been alive.  Any suggestions?

  1. Jnana Hodson says:

    Sometimes having more answers in our heads regarding a situation makes it harder to see through it. Charles Kettering once said that if he had a metallurgy problem and had a metallurgist and a biologist on his staff, he’d give the problem to the biologist, because he didn’t know everything that wouldn’t work. So we’re back to trying to see things afresh.

    • ohdwg says:

      Thanks Jnana! That’s a very interesting perspective and in fact par of the selfish reason that I’ve volunteered to teach. It’s amazing to see the solutions that kids will come up to problems that I pose to them with their fresh sets of eyes.

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