The Struggle is Real

*This may seem like the almost incoherent ramblings of a stressed out writer and teacher. It has taken me some time to write this, so I’m just trying to get it all out. Apologies if any parts of this don’t really make sense. 

I’ve really been struggling lately to write…anything, really…lately. These sentences are the first I’ve put down in a few weeks. There’s a lot running through my mind, but nothing seems to be right. I don’t trust myself. I don’t trust my beliefs about education. I don’t trust my contributions. I’m so afraid of misleading or being incorrect in my beliefs that it has paralyzed my ability to write. I’ve become mostly silent on Twitter, too, for many of the same reasons. I’m sure I’m not the only teacher/writer to ever experience this. You hear about writer’s block all the time. I’m not sure this is the same thing, but maybe it is. I have plenty to say, but I am so afraid of confusing and/or misdirecting others that I would, for the most part, prefer to just remain silent. 

Even writing this is difficult…although I’m not dispensing my usual take on teaching or providing some strategy. Again, nothing seems quite right. But, I’m going to force myself to work through this. I’m going to write this post. I would like the chance to unpack these feelings a bit; to better understand this myself, but maybe also assist others who have felt the same or may experience this in the future. It certainly isn’t a good feeling…it’s debilitating and makes me doubt myself as an educator and writer. I just feel stuck.

So, here’s where I think this is all coming from:

I really like when there is a right answer…an undeniable right answer. This is probably why I enjoyed math in school. There is (usually) one correct answer. Find that answer and you’ve solved the problem. I love that. Take that sentiment and apply it to myself as a teacher…I always want to do the right thing for my students. I want to teach in a manner that best benefits them. But, in education, and especially with education research, rarely is there a 100% correct answer. With few deviations, there are always exceptions to the ‘rules’. That doesn’t sit well with me. I want there to be a correct way to instruct my students. I want to know the best methods and I want those methods to work for all of my students all of the time. I completely understand this is an impossibility, and this only fuels my doubting anything I do in the classroom or anything I write about classroom instruction. I’m terrified of misleading others with my writing. I don’t take the usual stance on education that many do in the U. S. and this means I am often at odds with a number of the more popular American writers. I often use my take to add balance to the story of education. This is ok, as I don’t mind opposing the herd, but it causes me to constantly doubt myself and my writing. If nothing works all the time, how can I write with such certainty? The struggle is real. 

I think this may also touch a bit on the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The more I learn about education and the application of cognitive psychology principles in the classroom, the more I’m finding it to be excruciatingly complicated. Although, I don’t for one second consider myself to be someone with a high level of knowledge in the field as the image above suggests, I constantly find it harder to write about education because of the constant caveats. For every study I’ve read showing the positive effects of retrieval practice in the classroom, there are other studies indicating the negative impact of testing with respect to students’ stress and anxiety levels. I understand that all studies have different variables and to generalize a studies’ findings can be somewhat irresponsible…so what should I, and other teachers, believe? What do we trust? What is best for my students? At what time? In what scenarios? No one ever said teaching would be easy…but this is getting ridiculous for a guy who wants a clear-cut answer. I am quite obviously frustrated, confused, and exasperated. And someone who feels this way shouldn’t really be writing about instructional practice, right? The struggle is real.

So, where do I go from here? How do I get out of this writing funk? How do I get back to trusting myself? I’m not too sure, to be honest. I’m really hoping writing this and getting these feelings off my chest helps out. If this doesn’t work, I’m not too sure what’s next…the struggle is real.

If you’ve stayed with this rant for its entirety…thank you. I’m very sorry if, at any point, the content went a bit off the rails. I really just needed to force myself to get this out. Please feel free to offer guidance or assistance if you’ve ever been stuck in a similar mindset. What helped you get past this? I’m all ears.

18 thoughts on “The Struggle is Real

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  1. Much of this resonates with me. I think it is complex, and it’s hard. Many of us have an implicit mindset that we can fix things; mend them. In reality, in many cases we can only make small incremental steps. I share your discomfort with that; and I wish it were different, but I think it is just the way things are. And it makes me feel much better to know that this is how they have always been ; and recent ideas that we can ‘get it right’ are historical anomalies.

    We can only do what we can do; with our best efforts, We have to live with that.

  2. The struggle is real, and loads of teachers I’ve seen and read about are firmly to the left, but confident as hell about how their one study/article explains so much of what is right when it comes to pedagogy!

    My opinion is that this is testament to how much you care, coupled with the openness and diligence to search for what does work best to support your students.

    I have read your posts, and shared them with many ‘in the know’ in teacher training in the UK – a role I have been a leader in. They’re excellent. And have been put into practice by many trainees, to great effect. One quality that is shared by great teachers is their desire to improve and adapt to meet the complex needs of students.

    I’m going to throw it out there that we may be quite similar – as a science teacher with a background in psychology and an interest in the brain, pedagogy is the ideal area to drive my passions. But, and it’s a big but, I know that there’s a firm line drawn when it comes to getting definitive answers in pedagogy. Mainly because neuroscience and cognitive psychology and the education system are different beasts. We’re nearly but not quite there in knowing what’s happening at the neuronal level, and even when we know the sequence and location of events for forming memories – does this really help at a teacher level? Physics will need to help us out more here, to develop more sophisticated tools to measure brain activity. Cog psy is telling us more and more (in the face of a load of rubbish pedagogy this area is now mainstream, but not accepted as entirely accurate). But studies are always flawed and there are just too many variables. And let’s not forget cognitive dissonance even when there are useful findings from this field. And the goal of education isn’t remotely the same between countries, schools, and even teachers. You can easily get great results in a poor and questionable way.

    How do I deal with this? By using what time there is available to search for the best available evidence, and put into practice what seems reasonable to believe will be more beneficial than harmful to my students. This to me, is what being professional and modelling life-long learning is all about. It’s ok to be frustrated at wanting to be so far along the knowledge axis things are irrefutable, but this is arguably impossible. The desire to get there is what makes a great teacher. And at the end of the day, I need to love what I do to be better at it. And the students deserve the best version of us we can muster.

  3. Not much of a writer, but as an educator I feel most of the time similarly to what you wrote. I always feel like I’m not doing enough, not doing things as I should. But I have learned some things that can be relevant:
    1. When our first child was born, my wife and I said the first thing we need to do is open a savings account for his therapy. With parents like us, he will surely need it.
    2. Education research has begun to help me improve my teaching in the last year or so. But I don’t believe it can solve my problems as a teacher.
    3. The result? We need to keep learning and researching better teaching methods. But we can’t expect them to bring us to perfection. In the world we live in, at least, there can just be no such things. All we can do is strive to improve our success rates, make our failures less dramatic, and know that when all is said and done, we can only do that much. We are one stop on the students’ path. Not the first, not the last, and in most cases, not the most important.

  4. It is the people who appear to have no doubts that we should worry about! There is no absolute certainty in teaching and we never stop encountering new challenges and having to consider our approach. If you show both sides of the issue (eg on retrieval practice) and what research it is based on, then your readers can see what your conclusions are based upon and decide for themselves whether they agree with you. I hope you are able to keep going – I for one value your approach and style.

  5. I am an educational psychologist and I’m subscribed to a lot of these educational blogs like yours. Some are more scientific, others are more practical like yours. I use the input from these different educational blogs in my work as an educational advisor. All of these blogs portray different views, research and practices in education. To me that is inspiring to see that there are different approaches possible that work for some researchers and teachers but might not work for others.
    Educational research says that teachers play a pivotal role in the development of their pupils and that educational effectivess depends massively on the actual teacher. In research about the effectiveness of didactic methods and didactic approaches in the classroom researchers take into account factors like context and pupil characteristics. What I often miss in that sort of research is the effect of teachers’ beliefs about education. I strongly belief (and that is a personal conviction, not in anyway scientific) that the teachers’ beliefs and views on education are crucial when you want to measure the effectiveness of a didactic approach. I think you get better results when a didactic approach fits in with your beliefs about education and fits with your didactic skills and practices as a teacher. If a didactic approach doesn’t fit for you, you won’t get as good results. But does that mean you’re not a good teacher? You are not a good teacher for that didactic method, you might not be a good teacher for that school and those pupils. But you might florish as a teacher in a different educational context that fits with your beliefs. And your beliefs can evolve over time influenced by research and practices from other teachers. I think it’s important that teachers have a habit of challenging their beliefs, some sort of reflectiveness about their educational practice.
    If you believe in the effectiveness of retrieval practice, that’s great and it probably works in your classroom. If research says too much testing creates stress and anxiety, you can question yourself; Do I see pupils in my classroom who become insecure when I do retrieval exercises? Do I have pupils in my classroom with some degree of fear of failure? How can I create a safe environment in my classroom where retrieval practice is stimulating for everyone and doesn’t increase anxiety about testing? With your practices in doing so you can again inspire other teachers.
    I hope this comment can help you grow again in confidence on the Dunning-Kruger curve 🙂

  6. Oh no! I wrote a long comment and it got gobbled up. I’ll have to write a briefer version.

    1. I think this is absolutely a Dunning-Kruger thing. A lot of advocates for this and that position haven’t properly engaged with the tensions and ambiguities of teaching, and these tensions are well-represented by research.

    2. I have been here, though I’m not someone who particularly expects or enjoys clear answers (though I do love math). I do continually feel alienated from the vast majority of twitter (including traditional teaching advocates and progressive math educators) because there is high confidence in their teaching ideas.

    3. Some qualitative researchers have described how teaching inevitably draws teachers into doubt and uncertainty in a way that work in other professions is not plagued with. I’m thinking of Lortie, Hargreaves and Adam Lefstein. There is also a critique of the idea of “best practices” that can travel across contexts.

    4. Two things that have personally helped me. First, writing more specifically and conditionally. Not “retrieval practice works” but “if I want students to memorize multiplication facts and they already can derive them I play a flashcard game and here is how it works and here is why I like it.” Second, I use research to clarify the tensions I experience, when there is complexity and tension.

    5. Evidence-based teaching from my point of view is how you teach when you know the evidence. It’s not teaching according to the evidence, which is impossible. Please, keep writing!

  7. Education is complicated in part because our students are complicated and non-standard—their backgrounds vary, abilities vary, willingness to learn and try varies. We, as teachers, have to continually hone our craft because it is NOT an exact science. We have to gauge our current audience and determine what is right for THIS group at THIS time. Sometimes the class can handle many low-stakes checkpoints. Sometimes we need to skip a few for the sake of sanity and/or stress.

    There is no one single treatment to helping people become better people. Educators have to understand all the different approaches, read the current situation, and determine which is appropriate for NOW.

    And we are also learners. We have to try something new and be willing to allow it to fail. Knowing that failure is a possibility makes that leap sometimes difficult because the subject matter is the education of another generation. The parent in us wants to protect and nurture the young to help them on their way—we don’t want to make their path harder. In general I feel that there are techniques that work better than others. From there, I think the best course is to apply small tweaks here and there looking for improvements, which takes time. Large changes and guarantees of absolute success are terrifying because the consequences of being wrong are so great.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story. I know that I have felt the same way at times. You get to a point where maybe you feel like you are not making a difference, or you’re not using the right teaching method or tool or resource.. And the power of writing is that you share your experience with others who might in fact be feeling the exact same thing as you right now..although I never did this for many years, I strongly believe in sharing your story because even if it reaches one person, that’s enough.
    it can be frustrating to not know the one right answer but as Educators who are always learning as we go, and we have to keep ourselves open to new perspectives on changes and even if there seems to be just one right answer, push ourselves and even our students to think about it in a different way to possibly discover more answers.
    Not sure if this helps or not, but it’s important to be vulnerable and show ourselves and share our struggles.
    My guess is that after you wrote this and published it, you thought some more. Maybe read through it again and see if you feel different, see things differently. Keep on writing and sharing.

  9. Re: the cognitive aspect: confusion may be the beginning of wisdom.
    Re: the affect: take care of yourself!
    Tolerance for ambiguity is a trait we should be culrivating in our students, so good on you for modeling it.
    My administration and my professors both warned me never to show uncertainty in the classroom. Bull*@#! The arts of asking questions and pursuing the truth cannot be taught by he who is without humility.
    I have laced into you in comments on one or two of your pieces because you seemed to make assertions based on nothing but a need to be right. I was glad to read this post.
    Good luck!

  10. Hey Blake! Thanks for writing this, and thanks for always being so honest. I sympathize with your thoughts and feelings here, and I can definitely relate. I think I feel this way b/c of my experiences in my classrooms over the years: when you experience the wonderful terror of the complexity of real classrooms, you get cautious about dispensing “answers” or even advice. And that caution is a good thing, right? It keeps us honest? BUT I hope you keep writing. You inspire many teachers to use research as they make teaching decisions (I’m one of those teachers!). Your writing is thoughtful and respectful and scholarly. Here are two quotes that help me re-center myself when I feel like I might be getting lost in my own thinking about teaching/learning: Charles Brewer (legendary college psych prof.) said “Everything is more complicated than it is.” He knew that statement made no logical sense, yet it was still true about teaching and learning. Dylan Wiliam says “The right question in education is not what works. The right question is what works in what context.” (not an exact quote, probably). I think if we keep context in mind and we maintain our humble intellectual curiosity about teaching and learning, we’ll stay on the right path 🙂

  11. “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

  12. I have been through this and learned to let it go. I have stopped writing ie. stopped trying to influence others with my words. Instead I built a language learning technology so people can learn about language by doing it. I challenge you to explain the complexities of It is impossible. But learn about language by doing Kinephonics, it’s possible. We are making literacy possible for everyone.

  13. Well, Coach, what is to be done when the team is not playing well? Go back to the fundamentals and build from there. Your first blogs centered on you reading some research and then sharing how it might be applied to the classroom. Maybe it’s time to get back to basics. Read a whole lot more and see how it sparks your soul.

  14. It’s powerful to me to see this level of honesty and vulnerability. I feel this way often when I read your blog, actually… but I have to remind myself that our content is wildly different and my students’ growth is apparent when I look at their bodies of work. Maybe they need both of us, or someone similar, to be well-rounded. The rigors of your class may be stressful, but they get a break that still poses challenges in mine. I hope you keep writing. Your blog helps me examine my practice.

  15. Lots of insightful comments here already, obviously. I’ll just say this. If you didn’t write this post, we wouldn’t have Blake Harvard to help guide us, question us, keep us honest. Your incisive style is what drew me to you originally, sort of like watching a car crash unfold in real time, the first time I read you. But then I saw why the car crashed, how it could have been avoided from multiple perspectives, changed my outlook in a number of ways.

    I’ve noticed your writing absence over the past weeks and wondered aloud on more than one occasion, “What’s Blake been up to?” How about this, maybe you need to expand beyond retrieval practice and its associated practices and principles? Maybe you’re just limiting yourself to cog psychology a bit too narrowly, given your field of expertise. I believe you can and probably should expand into related areas like science of reading, the criticality of building academic vocabulary and background knowledge for the sake of developing skilled readers. I see lots of overlap in these concepts, obviously. Would love to see you extend and apply your clear thinking to areas you don’t normally, directly address. As a pre-service T in elem ed, I take a shit load out of your writing as it is, but I’m not sure you reach anywhere near the audience of similarly situated peeps like me, which you should.

    Maybe I’ve rambled and overstepped myself. Hopefully it contributes to your circumstances in some small way, though.

    Peace, man, you’re solid.


  16. These are my thoughts:
    – There is no holy grail in education. If you are looking for only that one 100% correct solution, you’d better accept the fact that there isn’t any. Just do the best you can with the knowledge you have at a certain moment, even if you are not completely convinced that the knowledge is correct. Without that knowledge you would not be that great teacher that you are now.
    – We are always going through the Dunning-Kruger curve over and over again as soon as you find new information that updates your knowledge. Everytime you find a new piece of the puzzle you might think that what you knew before wasn’t that correct after all. But I think that is not the case. I think that everytime you find new information you are just sharpening your view. If there is a study that shows that under certain conditions retrieval practice harms learning, it doesn’t mean that retrieval practice is wrong. It means that you are sharpening your view on retrieval practice. And it might be the case that what you wrote before that time was not completely correct knowing what you know now. You can always update an existing blog with that new information.
    – A lot of people are reading your blog. Even cognitive scientists. If you write something that is not completely correct, they can always respond to your blog and that response is in itself a kind of update of your blog. If it doesn’t happen, maybe you were writing the correct thing. Writing blogs gives you an opportunity to verify your view on education. If you’re right, you’re right. If you’re wrong, you’ll notice.
    – You should not be afraid about writing incorrect things. Sir Ken Robinson should!
    – I struggled with the same things. I wasn’t certain about the things I thought to know about education either. Until I accepted that there isn’t a 100% correct view on education. You just can’t know it all. And if you write something that isn’t 100% correct, it doesn’t mean it’s 100% incorrect. If everything was known, we would not need any scientists anymore. Even they don’t know everything! That’s why they do research.
    – If you are not sure about what you write, then you should even write more to verify your thoughts and views about education. It’s the only way to find out. If you stop writing, how are you ever going to find out? And if you were not completely right, you put people a whole lot in the right direction. Without the possibility of reading your blogs they might completely go in the wrong direction.

    By the way… I am not sure if all of the above is really helpful. So maybe I should not have written it. Well, I just did it. And if it wasn’t of any help, just let me know. That way I will learn from it and that way I might be of better help in the future.

  17. Hi Blake

    Your writing is always insightful and thought-provoking. Teaching and learning is complex, and the more you learn – the more you realise how much is not ‘certain’.

    Please don’t let your doubts stop you from writing. A lot of people love it.

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