Making Learning Simpler, not Easier

Just a few thoughts, here…a quick read. I hope the brevity of this post does not imply this isn’t an important topic to discuss. In fact, I think it is central to a healthy, productive classroom.

I often see the terms ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ used synonymously during discussions on twitter. For me, the two are quite different. I want to make learning simple, but I do not want to make it easy. As the name of my blog and twitter handle state, it should be effortful. This, from Make It Stick, sums it up nicely for me:

“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.”

So, what is the difference between simple and easy?

Simple is an organized, well-thought out lesson. It is understanding what strategies to utilize to best learn the material in a given classroom. It is investing in the cognitive effort necessary to successfully encode and store information for later retrieval; it is spacing retrieval attempts of material, it is elaborating and generating examples. Simple is not confusing ‘activities’ requiring students perform tasks that bury the important information to be remembered. Simple can, in fact, be mentally demanding; in can be difficult.

It is the opposite of easy.

Easy requires less of students. It many ways, it provides a crutch for the mental effort that should be done. It masks the learning, but somehow appears, in many cases, to be exciting and fun.** An easy classroom is a student’s favorite classroom…but for all the wrong reasons. Students are not thinking critically with and about the material. They are not challenged. It’s just…easy.

Why does this matter?

Because we should be striving to create simple classrooms. Classrooms where expectations are clear and procedures are understood. Instruction in this room is crystal clear. It gets to the heart of the to-be learned information so, upon acquisition of this knowledge, students can intelligently discuss and debate, create and innovate. But, it is not an easy classroom. It isn’t fluff and it isn’t fake. It doesn’t do the mental work for the student. It doesn’t conflate engagement with fun.

It is about the learning.

You want an innovative classroom? The simple classroom is it.

*Dr. Pooja Agarwal and Mrs. Patrice Bain’s new book, Powerful Teaching, highlights four of these learning strategies: retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, and feedback. I highly recommend this book for teachers and administrators at all levels of education.

**No, I’m not saying learning cannot be fun. Stop.

4 comments

  1. really like the point of this article — well said! Except I strongly disagree with the statement “An easy classroom is a student’s favorite classroom”. In my experience, an “easy” class is seldom the favourite; it can be downright boring and frustrating. Which I think further speaks to the author’s point — a simple, well-structured class is ideal.

  2. I really like the point of this article as well. I agree with Kimberly’s comment to a point also. In my experience, when students are young perhaps elementary and some middle school, kids may call the easy classroom the fun one. However in my high school experience, the easy classroom is not the favorite but has kids disengaged entirely, knowing they can rush at the end of the period and do something for a ‘good’ grade.

  3. Mega-dittos Blake–Another great point clearly made. I would only add that by simple, you are referring to the structure of the class and your expectations for the students. The concepts and ideas you are teaching can be quite complex. In fact, reducing the cognitive load of the class structure allows students to focus their limited resources on what you’re actually teaching.

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