I was aghast to read an extract from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits And The Art Of Battling Giants in The Guardian yesterday. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s the book I wanted to write!

Or rather, it’s not. The David & Goliath metaphor is intriguing, but not really what I’m interested in. What got my heart rate up was an oblique reference to Professor Bjork’s work on ‘desirable difficulties’. This extract from David and Goliath is, for the most part, about dyslexia. In it Gladwell contends that adversity creates conditions for surprising greatness:

Conventional wisdom holds that a disadvantage is something that ought to be avoided; that it is a setback or a difficulty that leaves you worse off than you would be otherwise. But that is not always the case. Can dyslexia, for example, turn out to be what’s known as a “desirable difficulty”? It is hard to believe that it can, given how many people struggle with the disorder throughout their lives – except for a strange fact.

An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic.

Obviously, Gladwell will have written something wildly successful, eminently readable and a lot better than anything I might write, but I’ve been fascinated by the idea that making the conditions in which students learn more difficult might increase their chances of retaining and transferring new knowledge and skills.

Gladwell’s big idea here is that the adversity of reading difficulties may well create the conditions where dyslexics compensate by developing better listening skills and memory. This may in turn mean that they are able to think faster on their feet and, hey presto! they’re a successful entrepreneur.

Now, of course I’m caricaturing the argument; Gladwell himself makes the point that those who suffer with dyslexia wouldn’t wish the condition on their own children. Add to the that the vast numbers of dyslexics who are not multi-millionaires and I think we can agree that reading difficulties on their own are hardly likely to make a person successful. I will read the rest of the book with interest and look forward to the inevitable insights that Gladwell’s restless mind always sheds on the fascinating crevices of popular psychology, but in the meantime I think there is important thinking to be done in the sphere of education. Bjork’s experiments are conducted under laboratory conditions and, while they provide compelling evidence of how we learn, think and remember, these things become massively more complex when released into the roiling cauldron of real classrooms. In reality, if I make it harder for my pupils (particularly the ones I’m currently teaching) to learn I’ll just annoy them. I find it challenging enough to motivate truculent teenagers without asking them to swallow the hare-brained theorising of cognitive scientists and become my willing lab rats.

And this is a problem with education research. Much as I find the theory of desirable difficulties compelling, putting it into practice is fraught with, dare I say it, difficulties. The problem is, short term gains in performance are what our education system is all about: kids want to feel they’ve made a step closer to passing an exam each lesson, teachers want to feel that they’re working their way through the curriculum and that pupils are on track to make three or, please God, four levels of shiny progress and the Byzantine accountability systems that oversees it all doesn’t really seem to give a stuff about actually learning. Who cares if pupils actually retain and apply what they’ve learned in school? As long as they pass those exams nothing else seems to matter. If as teachers we try to cast ourselves as researchers into our practice, will we be supported if what we’re interested in researching doesn’t align with these short-term goals?

Against this backdrop, the prevailing winds in education research blow steadily towards finding out ‘what works’. And when we say ‘works’ we tend to mean, ‘produces the best exam results’. This is why so much time and effort is spent intervening with Year 11 pupils who might not make the grade. I don’t think anyone really believes that this is the best way to expend our resources but those short term boosts in performance that come from intensive massed practice are all the excuse we need to keep on doing it. For as long as we’re held so rigidly to account on whether Year 11 can perform at C grade on a given day, no one is really going to care enough about experimenting with spaced and interleaved curricula for Year 7.

Are all difficulties desirable? Does adversity always bring out the best in us? One of the other fascinating nuggets Gladwell unearths in his new book is that the death of a parent greatly increases the chances of ‘genius’ emerging. The number of British prime ministers, American presidents and various other highly distinguished folks across history who lost a parent in childhood is compelling. This would suggest that we are at our best when things are hardest. Diamonds are created from tremendous geological forces and so too, it seems, are great people. But for the most part people are broken when put under enough pressure. That’s not to say everything will break, but there’ll always be casualties. At what point will the difficulties inherent in trying to do the best for the young people we’re supposed to be educating become too great? How much stress can the system be put under before it snaps? Or is the millstone of shifting league table measures, high stakes inspections and one-shot opportunities to pass merely a useful way to sort the wheat from the chaff?

Related posts

Stress – how much is too much?
Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder
Does dyslexia exist?
John Tomsett on the announcement that retakes won’t count in schools’ accountability measures