We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard. – JFK

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

A teachers’ job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless. – John Hattie – Visible Learning

Our attitude to effort is embedded in our language: easy does it, hard luck, easy on the eye, don’t take it so hard. Why is it that we have come to view things that are ‘hard’ as bad?

I spoke to my new Year 10 class today about their upcoming Controlled Assessment and encountered some students complaining that it sounded ‘too hard’. I pounced. ‘So,’ said I, ‘Would you prefer to do something easier?’

‘Yes!’ came a ragged, but hopeful chorus. I then proceeded to give them a series of insultingly simple wordsearches to do. ‘Happy now?’

‘No sir, it’s too easy,’ they chanted in wide eyed bewilderment. ‘We’re not learning anything!’

‘Aha. So what do you want? To learn, or to do something easy?’

That stumped ’em. I asked them what grade they wanted to achieve for their assessment. Most of them dutifully said that wanted to get their target grade. When challenged that perhaps they weren’t aiming high enough some of them said, somewhat sheepishly, that they wanted As or A*s. Other’s scoffed. ‘How’s Luke ever going to get an A*?’ one youngster called derisively.

‘By working hard,’ I told them.

You see, it’s fairly easy to settle for a low grade. You don’t have work very hard to coast. But getting an A*? That’d require blood, sweat and tears. It’d be hard bloody graft. It’d be uncomfortable. It would be a damn sight easier not to try!

In a Guardian interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw, Gove’s hero and head of the spectacularly successful Mossbourne Academy, the interviewer, Susanna Rustin says of Wilshaw’s message of exacting standards and high expectations,

I know what he means about standards, and about promoting a culture of effort and hard work. I went to a London comprehensive, and I gave up science subjects at 16 largely because humanities came more easily to me. I’d like to have a science A-level, or speak German, or have learned the trombone. Then again, I had fun in the sixth form, spending time with my friends.

What does this tell us? Should we value having fun in the sixth form over speaking German? Ideologically, I feel myself opposed to Wilshaw’s brand of ‘old fashioned discipline’ and ‘non-negotiable respect for those in charge’. But perhaps the complacency I see in my Year 10 students is no different to schools taking the ‘easy’ route to improved performance i.e. BTECs, Diplomas and other courses which produce high gains in terms of league table points and little in terms of improved outcomes for students. Is it easier to do well in BTEC sport than GCSE French? Perhaps this is something we’re all guilty of? Perhaps we should be grateful for Gove and his E-bacc?

Or maybe I’m being cynical? John Fowles said in The Magus, “all cynicism masks a failure to cope– an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all.” Dr Carol Dweck points out in Mindset that it is a fairly standard fixed mindset response to see effort as evidence of failure. I see this attitude all around: success should be easy. Only plodders and thickos have to try. This is not only pernicious, it’s untrue. I think this holds true for contemporary views on relationships: if they’re not easy, they’re bad. Hence divorce. The alternative is hard work and no wants to do that! Here’s Michael Jordan on the subject:

Back in the classroom, I told my Year 10s that anyone can be better than they are currently; anyone can improve. Sadly though, it requires effort. It’s not easy.

When I was at school I was pretty good at English and I found it easy. I coasted and got a B. Now though I’m amazing at English; I can turn out A* star essays effortlessly. Because I’ve working at it day in day out for 12 years, I have become an English machine. I read over the summer that if you wouldn’t be prepared to do your job for free you should quit. I told my class that I would do my job for free (if my boss is reading this, please take with a pinch of salt!) and that I taught because I loved it. And teaching isn’t easy! I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone who doesn’t love it would put themselves through it. If I didn’t love it, it’d be too hard.

This sort of gushing makes teenagers uneasy. Is he for real? Should we mock him, or love him for it? Whatever they might say, they love hearing this kind of thing. Who wouldn’t? It makes them feel special. I understand that I’m not going to get them all to love English overnight. Doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying though. It would certainly be ‘easier’ to let them coast and not bother too much about their motivation. Easy, as I explained to my eager young charges, is not good enough.

At the end of the lesson I asked them who wants to do something easy next week? And who wants to do something hard? I was gratified to see that many of them seemed to have shifted into the hard work camp. Does this mean my students’ grades will rocket? Probably not. Not straight away, anyway.

I have told them all them my mission is to get them all to have growth mindsets and to be able to motivate themselves to work hard. Wish me luck.

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