The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. Albert Camus

The gods of ancient Greece punished Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, for his hubris by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he got it to the top. One can only imagine that Sisyphus was not a happy chap.

Pushing a boulder up a hill with no prospect of ever reaching the top has become the very image of futility. Most people only persist with something difficult when they believe success is possible. Students are no different. It’s pointless having the expectation that students will work hard to get top grades if they are unable to see how this might be achieved. Success and struggle must be balanced.

Since first writing about Robert & Elizabeth Bjork’s concept of ‘desirable difficulties‘ back in 2013, I’ve thought a lot about what the phrase means and how best to explain it. The sorts of difficulties the Bjorks have studied are designed to reduce performance during instruction in order to increase retention and transfer over the longer term. These desirable difficulties include allowing students to forget some of the material covered before it’s reintroduced (spacing) mixing up different content in order to prevent students developing the illusion of knowledge (interleaving) asking questions about material which has already been covered rather than restudying it in order to prevent students developing a false sense of familiarity and fluency (retrieval practice) varying the conditions in which instruction takes place in order to prevent contextual cues from building up and making it harder for students to transfer what they’ve learned to new contexts (variation) and progressively reducing the frequency and quantity of feedback given in order to prevent students from becoming dependent on external sources of expertise.

There’s something of a vogue for failure at the moment. I’ve noticed that when talking to teachers about these things, the message sometimes gets misinterpreted as just making work more difficult, or as justification for not helping students when they struggle. Some people seem to believe that students should be encouraged – even forced – to get things wrong and cope with unachievable tasks. This is, I think, a mistake.

Struggle is worthwhile because it’s the only way in which we improve. When we stop struggling we reach a plateau beyond which we stop improving. We may think we’re getting better, but we’re probably just becomingly increasingly confident. Developing mastery or expertise requires concentration; we must think about what we’re doing. As soon as we’re able to perform a task on autopilot, we’re no longer learning.

The problem is that struggling isn’t much fun. Most people prefer the feeling of being able to fluently perform a task at a lower level of expertise than pushing themselves to be better. If students just struggle this is probably undesirable. If students struggle too much, or too soon, this will also be undesirable. Struggle is, I think, only desirable after success has been encoded. What I mean by this is that most students will find it demotivating to struggle at something if they see little hope of success, but if they have a clear mental representation of what success looks and feels like, they’re more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty.

So, what I advocate is teaching that begins with the express purpose of encoding success: clear explanations, careful modelling of high expectations, well-structured scaffolding to ensure students experience success and guided practice with lots of feedback. Only then, when students have experienced some measure of success, should we introduce struggle.

At this point, the aim of instruction should shift to promoting internalisation. Students will only be independent when they have the means to accomplish a task within themselves. If they’re relying on something outside themselves, they’ll never master challenging content. Once success is encoded, students should be ready to have some of the scaffolding we’ve used to artificially boost their performance removed. They’re ready for less detailed, less frequent feedback on their progress and, hopefully, they’re ready for increasingly independent practice. All this will mean that it’s more difficult for students to perform well in class, but because they have a clear mental representation of success, they’re better able to contend with difficulties. That said, if at any point they look to be struggling too much, the best thing to do is to restore some of the support and offer clearer feedback. The point is not that students should sink or swim, it’s that they should all swim.

Introducing struggle should always be balanced against students’ sense of self-efficacy. Too much struggle is likely to backfire: what they’re most likely to learn is that they’ve reached a limit beyond which they’re not capable of improving. They’ll either decide to settle for a more achievable seeming target or give up entirely because they don’t want to feel stupid. Instead, they need to believe that improvement is possible through their own efforts. Only when we believe improvement is possible do we put up with having to struggle.

In summary, the message is that introducing struggle is important and valuable, but risky. If you get it wrong students won’t enjoy your lessons and will probably give up. If you never make them struggle at all they may well develop an unrealistic view of their own ability and may well believe they’re better than they actually are. So, it may help to follow these three steps:

  1. Encode success
  2. Promote internalisation
  3. Increase challenge