Rethinking Rigor: Desirable Difficulties vs. Heavy Lifting

In his recent column “Should Teachers Know the Basic Science of How Children Learn,” Daniel Willingham writes that “some statements concerning children’s learning are perfectly sound scientifically but should not influence educational decisions.” Basically, educators must be very discerning when evaluating the usefulness of common educational phrases.

As examples, Willingham highlights unhelpful, epistemic assumptions like “learning is social…everybody learns differently…knowledge is constructed.” These vague platitudes, while containing tiny grains of truth, offer far less value to educators than empirical generalizations – consistent observations in research across background, age, task, and context. One robust and uncontested empirical generalization would be that practice helps memory. 

My aim here is to more closely examine the epistemic assumption that glorifies struggle while learning. It sounds something like “without struggle, there is no learning.” It is this epistemic assumption that confuses teachers about what effective teaching looks like, and needlessly complicates the learning process for learners.

The Glorification of Struggle

We all want to build students’ perseverance, grit and problem-solving abilities. To do this, we are often encouraged to make students “do the heavy lifting” in lessons. As such, teachers are often discouraged from giving students students clear explanations or efficient procedures for solving problems.

Instead, it is now the norm to have students struggle on their own or in groups to construct their own strategy. Or, students are to engage in an endless “guess what’s in the teacher’s head” game to “make connections” in the name of “inquiry.”

I call this the glorification of struggle. Times are such that simply teaching a skill/concept clearly and having students practice said skill/concept is believed to negatively impact motivation, enthusiasm, and conceptual understanding. This obsession with struggle fuels polemics heard in my teacher training like:

“The worst thing a teacher can do when a student asks a question is answer it.”

Or this from a recent KQED Mindshift post entitled “Why Normalizing Struggle Can Create a Better Math Experience for Kids.”

“Parents or educators can support a child when she is struggling through a problem by framing it as an adventure to be worked through together…teach them that not knowing is not failure. It’s the first step to understanding.”

Listen, I get it. Struggling is a huge part of the learning process. In order to grow, we need to experience failure and setbacks. This is the foundation of a growth mindset – knowing that our abilities are not fixed, and that we can persevere in the face of obstacles. And in life, we might not always have a teacher showing us the steps, right?

Yet the glorification of struggle is being taken to the extreme in education, and is often used to rationalize poor, ineffective teaching. Worse yet, teachers are now actively discouraged from clearly modeling and engaging in guided practice. The epistemic assumption that “without struggle, there is no learning” distorts what good teaching looks like, and does not take into account what we have learned about the brain’s working and long-term memory.

And so, if we are going to ask students to struggle, we need to be much more clear about how exactly this should be done. We need empirical generalizations, not vague assumptions. Research on desirable difficulties is the most useful place to start.

Desirable Difficulties

In his article “Learning vs. Performance: A Distinction Every Educator Should Know,” Nick Soderstrom identifies desirable difficulties as crucial for pushing students past short-term performance towards long-term learning. Soderstrom also reminds readers that the most robust learning takes place over time.

Therefore, it is not helpful for students to struggle with newly-taught material. They should be experiencing high levels of success, at least initially. This is accomplished through clear modeling, extensive guided practice, and frequent checks for understanding. In other words – explicit teaching.

“In order to reap the learning benefits of these strategies, students need to be equipped with the necessary background knowledge and skills to overcome the challenges. There’s a sweet spot with this [desirable difficulties] stuff  – think Goldilocks.”

Soderstrom (2019)

Once necessary background knowledge and skills are taught and practiced, then students are ready for additional challenge and difficulty.  Crucially, the level of task difficulty should increase incrementally.

“If students aren’t struggling a bit — that is, if their performance isn’t somewhat hindered — they’re probably not engaged with the material in ways that will lead to meaningful, long-term comprehension and understanding.”

Soderstrom (2019)

Well-known desirable difficulties include:

  1. Spaced practice over time, versus massed practice or cramming.
  2. Interleaved practice that activate related but varied skills/concepts.
  3. Retrieval practice to strengthen long-term retention. The best way to study is to test.

Notice again that these desirable difficulties are implemented after students have been taught material. When teachers metaphorically throw students into the deep end with new content, they are merely overloading working memory. This is not rigor – rather, we are only frustrating students who want to learn and master challenging material.

It’s Okay to Teach Students Effectively

The more effectively we teach students necessary background knowledge and procedures, the more we can implement desirable difficulties and give students tasks that involve greater independence/autonomy. If students are constantly struggling, they are likely not learning much.

Initially, the teacher should be doing much of the heavy lifting while students experience success. However, as students gain mastery and build deeper background knowledge in their subject, they will be ready and eager for more challenge and difficulty.

Put Simply

  • Be wary of epistemic assumptions like “without struggle, there is no learning” that distort and provide little value to educators
  • Students should experience high levels of success initially when learning new content
  • Desirable difficulties can be implemented in later lessons to make learning more resilient

You can check out the second post in this series entitled Rethinking Rigor: How To Actually Develop Conceptual Understanding and Flexible Thinking


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7 thoughts on “Rethinking Rigor: Desirable Difficulties vs. Heavy Lifting

  1. Students should not have to struggle when new material is being introduced. After they have some basics in place, struggle (or what I call simply the application of effort that includes willingness to apply existing knowledge to unfamiliar situations) becomes more valuable.

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  2. Interesting points and I agree. However, I’m confused by the sentiment that teachers are discouraged from modelling. Thankfully in the trust I work in modelling is seen as key, and this is also the view I get from the many people I interact with on twitter and in local schools.

    Clearly you have encountered it, or you wouldn’t have written it, so how wide have you seen it? Have you just had bad experiences, or have I just had good ones? I’m intrigued to find out the answer.

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