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Lesson difficulty – Don’t tell students a task will be ‘easy’

Abstract illustration of a paper aeroplane breaking through a simple wooden labyrinth, representing lesson difficulty

You may mean well when saying a task will be ‘easy’ – but such words carry weight, and can have unintended consequences, warns Gordon Cairns…

Gordon Cairns
by Gordon Cairns
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For songwriters, ‘easy’ is a good thing. ‘Take it easy…’ sang The Eagles in the 70s, telling us to not overthink things and just relax. Lionel Richie was meanwhile ‘Easy like Sunday morning,’ his problems now over after emerging from a difficult relationship.

In fact, almost everywhere in life – from ‘Windows Made Easy’ PC user guides, to cheap flights courtesy of EasyJet – ‘easy’ is something that’s actively desired and sought after.

Education is no exception. ‘Don’t worry,’ the teacher reassures their class, ‘This is easy.’ The student exiting the exam hall assures her friends that she’s done well; after all, ‘It was easy.’ In our everyday lives, this outwardly innocuous, commonly used four-letter word is often something which broadly benefits us.

Hearing versus meaning

In the classroom, however, things aren’t as straightforward as that. When a class teacher describes the work about to be undertaken as ‘easy’, this is obviously said with good intentions. The purpose is to reassure pupils that what they’re about to do is within their capabilities, and won’t be too taxing – ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got this…

Yet there can often be a marked distinction between what individual students hear, and what the teacher actually means, creating the opposite of the intended effect.

Those who do indeed find the work straightforward might well wonder what the point of doing the activity even is, and therefore hand in careless, slapdash work.

Falling behind

Conversely, those students who actually don’t find the task easy at all will worry they’re not as clever as their classmates, and fear falling behind. Their reasoning – ‘If this is meant to be easy, what’s the rest of the year’s work going to be like?

Worse still, this latter group of students won’t want to embarrass themselves by asking the teacher for help. After all, this work has already been described as ‘easy’. What’s the teacher going to think about them if they can’t understand it?

For yet another section of the class, you’re effectively building a wall between you and them. Any perception they might have of you as a superior, aloof, university-educated expert in the subject will be confirmed if you loftily dismiss work they think is important as ‘easy’, and appear unable to recognise, never mind address their barriers to learning. ‘Yeah, easy for you’ they may think, resentfully…

Learning intentions

None of this is to say that classroom learning has to be perceived by students as being ‘difficult’ if it’s to be worth doing. But if you genuinely think the classwork you’re setting should be handled with relative ease by the young people sat in front of you, it might be worth asking yourself what the learning intentions of the session are.

If it’s to recap previous learning, you could perhaps frame the lesson thus, rather than dismiss its purpose as somehow less important than new learning.

On the other hand, if you’re setting work that pupils will easily complete in order to give the class a confidence boost, describing the tasks as ‘easy’ will undercut what you’re trying to do. (Though it’s worth noting that, say, Manchester City don’t feel the need to play Fort William of the Highland League before every big match to improve their confidence levels).

Don’t say ‘easy’

Back when I was training as a forest school teacher, I fell into an easy trap. We trainees sat in a circle around a fire pit in the middle of the woods. The course leader showed us how to guarantee a successful fire every time by secreting cotton wool dipped in Vaseline amongst the twigs, branches and dried leaves making up the fuel.

The idea was that students would aim to hit the highly flammable cotton balls with a spark from their flint and steel fire lighters. “To make lighting the fire easier for the students?” I asked the instructor (rhetorically). “Don’t say ‘easy’,” she replied. “We’re creating achievable goals for the participants.

After the students had spent time collecting usable dry wood from the forest floor, then choosing a safe spot for their carefully structured bonfire, it would have been a poor lesson indeed if, for some reason, said fire wouldn’t ignite. Guaranteeing that the fire would produce flames – even if only from the cotton wool – didn’t render that whole process ‘easy’.

A question of framing

That’s a lesson I’ve since taken with me and applied not just to my instruction on how to build working fires, but also to how we frame the activities we set our students more generally.

This is partly because how we frame things for students is how they will end up framing it to themselves, with our words sometimes coming back to haunt us. It’s more common for someone who has done well in an exam to think that the questions were easy, rather than conclude that their own hard work paid off, or that they’re simply intelligent.

This can have the effect of diminishing their own input into their success. It reduces it to the same level as luck, rather than prompting them to take credit for doing well. Any boost they might have had to their self-esteem is therefore removed.

Nocebo effect

However, don’t take that to mean that we should tell our students that the work is ‘going to be difficult’. They might then encounter the nocebo effect. This is a psychological response which can sometimes occur when one expects to undergo a negative experience. For example, you’re more likely to experience the side effects of medication if a doctor tells you beforehand exactly what they’re going to be – even after taking a placebo.

Is it even necessary to foreshadow what the work is ‘going to be like’ at all? Your own thoughts on whether they’re likely to find a given learning experience boring or exciting; time consuming or quick; hard or easy ultimately isn’t going to add anything of value.

Ironically, one of the most deeply annoying things about being a teacher is hearing someone from a different walk of life tell you how easy your job is. They usually cite the (supposedly) shorter working days and lengthy holidays.

We hate hearing our own work described as ‘easy’. Yet we’re sometimes happy to tell our students that the work we’re giving them is exactly that. This is good for them… how, precisely?

Next time you’re tempted to describe a learning activity as ‘easy’, just pause and reconsider.

Before describing the work as ‘easy’, ask yourself…

  1. If the work actually is easy, why are you setting it? Materials that don’t push the students out of their comfort zone won’t bring them into the learning zone, where you can push and improve their skills and abilities.
  2. Whether describing the work as easy, when a student doesn’t find that to be so, might force the student in question into a state of stress. This will make it much harder for them to learn.
  3. Do you have to even describe the work at all? A teacher’s opinion carries more weight in the classroom than it does when you’re socialising with friends and, say, discussing the Barbie movie. Yet even then, you’d probably refrain from sharing your coruscating opinions with the guy wearing the ‘I Am Kenough’ T-shirt. Maybe you don’t need to let the class know your opinion on the work they’re about to do.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD; he also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.

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