First published in Dutch on the 21st of March 2017
“I can do the fun courses, that’s not the problem. I have trouble with the boring and annoying courses. I keep procrastinating.”
One of the most persistent misconceptions about the learning process is the idea that real learning has to feel pleasant. The idea is understandable. Learning is aimed at us gaining more knowledge and being able to do more things. The resulting addition of competence feels good, because it is nice to feel more and more skillful at things. This pleasure can propel our efforts further, making us more and more competent while our wellbeing increases.
The well-known psychological state called flow is often referred to as the ultimate learning experience. You almost become one with your surroundings and, nearly automatically, make extraordinary achievements. It is wonderful to float on a stream of effectiveness towards formidable destinations where doubts, anxiety, and frustrations are left behind.
I wish everyone to have such experiences, but I also wonder whether our idealization of this magical flow does not do more damage than that it inspires us. Is it, development-psychologically speaking, really that valuable? Is it an ultimate learning experience or is it an ultimate experience? I think the latter.
What is the driving force behind the language development of a child? Or rather, what is the driving emotion? You might think it is curiosity, but you would be wrong. The answer is frustration. The child wants all sorts of things and knows that manipulating the mother, the father and others is very effective in that regard. But with “EEEH!” and “UMMGH!”, the child only gets so far. Frustration causes the child to learn the necessary words.
Of course, feelings such as interest, pleasure, and euphoria also play an important role in our learning, but the value of frustration has been, I think, neglected. I regularly come across this emotion from students. They think my confrontational style is unpleasant, the material too abstract and their progress too slow. This can lead to anxiety, irritation, and frustration.
Some students sometimes even drop out of the counselling sessions. One student searches for the reason within him- or herself. They interpret their displeasure and struggles as a shortcoming of themselves. In their eyes, it is a signal that they are not ready for it or can’t do it. Others aim their arrows at me (“I don’t like your approach.”). They consider me forceful, shortsighted and even arrogant and patronizing. I am often told that I don’t take their problems seriously.
First of all, I always take the student seriously. I always lament a student’s decision to stop the sessions early. It really gets to me and I consider it a failure on my part. I have always thought it is a lazy conclusion to claim that the student concerned isn’t able to open up or is not yet ready for it. The very fact that they come to me means that they are open to counselling and are in need of help. It is my responsibility to tempt them to a level of learning that they wouldn’t have reached on their own.
The easier the better
Tempting a student this way, however, is complicated by the fact that many people think something’s wrong when they don’t feel good about a challenge. The educational psychologist Robert Bjork from the University of California (UCLA) has stated in a study that students relate the degree of learning with the ease with which they succeeded in a task. In other words, the better it goes, the better they feel and the more they think they have learnt.
This explains why students are inclined to prefer doing relatively easy assignments such as underlining important passages in a text or making notes during class to harder activities such as summarizing in one’s own words and coming up with questions about the subject matter. A larger degree of effort is seen as counterproductive even though these activities have a much larger learning effect!
The idea of learning pleasantly also has an effect on the review of teachers and courses. It has been shown that as the students hold both aspects in higher regard, the actual learning effect becomes lower. They value the pleasantness of the classes rather than what they learn. In that sense, receiving critical feedback might reveal that, as a teacher, you are doing your job well. A certain tension field can be expressed by a “bad” review that is very advantageous for real learning.
Actual and Proximal Development
The Russian development psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to this tension field through a distinction between the zone of actual and proximal development. In the zone of actual development, people are confronted with tasks they are already quite good at. As a result, these people are fairly relaxed because they can fulfill the tasks with only a little effort. Growth is expressed primarily in “finetuning” their skills. Impressive achievements can be made but large learning steps aren’t made.
Large learning steps are reserved for the zone of proximal development. Not everything goes wrong here, but the person is inadequate enough for accurate reflection and firm adjustments to be necessary. The large steps of development take place in this zone. Euphoria and success are alternated by setbacks and frustration.
Years ago, I wrote about the four stages of competence (see A Plea for doubt and confusion):
1. Unconsciously competent
2. Consciously incompetent
3. Consciously competent
4. Unconsciously incompetent
I emphasized the importance of the second stage. Since then, my emphasis has only increased (also see: Ever tried ever failed). I consider the ability of being able to deal with your incompetent moments to be fundamental to personal progression. The third stage cannot be attained without going through the second stage. “Embrace your incompetence!” is a message I often give during my training sessions, workshops or lectures. It is the best way to improve.
Fixed and growth mindset
These views fits nicely within the ideas of psychologist Carol Dweck who uses the term mindset for the collection of attitudes that people have about their learning challenges. Dweck distinguishes between two extremes, the fixed and the growth mindset. Both modes of thinking have characteristics that allow the exact same objective learning situation to be interpreted in a completely different way.
People with a fixed mindset view their own capacities as fixed. “You either have it in you, or you don’t. You can do it, or you can’t”. The result is that every challenge is seen as a threat. When the person doesn’t succeed, or not immediately, this means that you can’t do it and therefore are simply less capable than someone else who does manage to succeed immediately. These people prefer staying within the confines of their comfort zone, or rather, their zone of actual development. Within that zone, they only have to do what they already know.
People with a growth mindset, view failures as temporary (“I am not yet able to do it.”). They recognize their incompetence but don’t experience them as a threat because their capabilities are not rigid. They can learn from their failures and develop further. These people see a setback and frustration as normal aspects of the learning process. They know, intuitively or consciously, that without friction there is no shine.