Do children need to struggle to learn?
Perhaps it is shocking, but I don’t think they do. I think they need to be exposed to intellectually stimulating, creative, well written or produced, thought provoking, challenging material.
When I was in 6th grade we moved from Massachusetts, where no foreign language was taught in elementary school to Connecticut, where Spanish began in grade 3. I was three years behind and had to catch up quickly. Every night my Dad would sit with me, my Dad who does not speak one word of Spanish. I remember tears. I remember worry. I remember intense embarrassment when I pronounced the J as a J in class and received no correction from the teacher but a room full of laughs and snickers from my classmates. I also remember love. My Dad was the one who took it upon himself to teach me to read when I was 4. I have vague memories of his flashcards and phonics. He took it upon himself (I’m sure my Mom had lots to do with this behind the scenes) to teach me Spanish so that I would not be frustrated and embarrassed and for that I am truly grateful. But you know what? I never did learn Spanish. I don’t remember my letter grade that year but if I did not get an A for effort, I was robbed. My Dad did not recieve any accolades for his work with me either. He did it out of love. Looking back 30 years, I learned some lessons from this experience. I learned perseverance. I learned about courage. I learned about the stupidity of a system based on rules. Why the school could not give me a waiver until 7th grade when I could begin a language in year 1 is still a mystery to me. But I never did learn the language that my father and I spent so many hours trying to decipher.
This concept came to me recently as I was struggling with my continual dilemma of “is this hard enough?” Karen and I were texting back and forth, as we usually do when we are working out an issue related to homeschooling our daughters.
"I remember the classes I struggled with, but I did not necessarily learn in them. I remember a theory (I forget the psychologist) who I learned about when I was in school for teaching who felt there is a space between complacency and frustration where the learning occurs. Too easy, no learning, too hard, no learning. So I guess it all comes down to are they learning?....and yes they are."
The psychologist is Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and the term that is used for this is the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). This was pulled from deep within my memory but brought to the surface by some conversations I have overheard or read online. I have my own theory that the harder the class or course and the greater the level of frustration of the participants, the greater the bragging rights of the parents. It seems that parents like to claim their child’s achievements whether it is an academic award they won, an athletic trophy, or record they set, and yes, how much homework they do, and how much they struggle to learn. To me this is akin to adults sighing loudly over working a 60 hour work week or lamenting about how long their commute is or how their lives are spent in cars shuttling their children from activity to activity. We have become so codependent on the lives of our children that we actually seek validation from their struggles. We have forgotten the joy in living, so we try to find validation from the struggles of living.
Don’t we think it is time to change that paradigm? I think we can do better. I think we can do hard things, things that teach us perseverance and commitment and the value of hard work from actually being in the community and working. Do you want to learn history? Go to the source or find a great museum. Do you want a strong work ethic? Get a job, or volunteer. Do you want to learn a language? Find someone who speaks it and become friends. Want to learn responsibility? Get a pet. Want to learn how to write? Read great books. Want a better vocabulary? Listen to great books. Want inspiration? Spend time in nature. Want more time? Waste less time.
Life does not have to be as hard as we make it. Learning does not either.