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Do we need to make it more difficult to learn?

While I am not totally convinced about the argument in this post "The uses of difficulty" (recommended by @BeCyberwise), it certainly made me think. On the surface, it sounds like common sense - the more we are challenged, the more of our brain we use, and the more creative we become. I can see that in some circumstances, being challenged can make folks step back and look at the 'thing as a whole' rather than focusing on the minutiae. On the other hand, as someone who used to write essays by hand, I don't feel it made my essays any better, but it certainly bugged me when I realised I needed to change the order of certain paragraphs, or that certain sentences were awful - which meant re-writing at least an A4 page. Definitely not creative, and in fact the process interfered with my flow of thinking. 

Likewise, the whole notion of cognitive overload (where too much information, tasks, and new skills are demanded at once, such that we want to give up in despair) suggests that too muchchallenge results in total shut down. So, is it a case of finding a balance? Are obstacles useful? Or is it a flawed notion? What do you think?

This is an excerpt from the post, by Ian Leslie:

Our brains respond better to difficulty than we imagine. In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level. Robert Bjork, of the University of California, coined the phrase “desirable difficulties” to describe the counter-intuitive notion that learning should be made harder by, for instance, spacing sessions further apart so that students have to make more effort to recall what they learnt last time. Psychologists at Princeton found that students remembered reading material better when it was printed in an ugly font.

Scientists from the University of Amsterdam recently carried out a series of experiments to investigate how obstacles affect our thought processes. In one experiment, people were set anagram puzzles to solve, while, as an obstacle to concentration, a series of random numbers were read out. Compared with those in a control group who performed the same task without this distraction, these subjects displayed greater cognitive agility: they were more likely to take leaps of association and make unusual connections. The researchers also found that when people are forced to cope with unexpected obstacles they react by increasing their "perceptual scope"—taking a mental step back to see the bigger picture. When you find your journey to work blocked by a construction site, you have to map the city in your mind. (source)


'Caption contest': (Found on

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Comment by Hazel Owen on January 12, 2016 at 11:35

A related post that unpacks some of the thinking approaches encouraged by 'being connected' can be found at: Education in the information age: is technology making us stupid?. This post also refers to desirable difficulties: "In terms of what this means for education, psychologist Robert Bjork and his team at UCLA have been investigating what they call “desirable difficulties”. A desirable difficulty is a feature of a learning situation that is deliberately made more challenging to enhance learning" (source).

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