The image with the skateboarder was used to advertise Mountain Dew and appeared on the back of buses and on billboards in Wellington last year. It echoes the message I have been teaching students about learning: “Everything is hard before it is easy”.

When students are studying for an exam, the best tip I can ever offer is the idea they need to learn what they don’t know – going over and over what they do know is largely a waste of time.

Learning is finding out what you don’t know and learning it. For example, our daughter brought home 10 spelling words and advised us that the teacher had asked her to write them all out 10 times a night for four nights. I asked her which ones she could already spell. After she shrugged her shoulders, I tested her. She accurately and confidently spelt nine correctly. She only now needs to learn one. One of the words on her list that she could spell was ‘family’. If she writes this out 40 times over the week, will she get better at spelling it? No, it’s a waste of time.

This is true of all learning. Going over what you know makes you feel good. “Oh I know that”, “Aren’t I clever”, and “I’m so smart” are the internal responses that send endorphins racing through the brain and make us feel good. In contrast, when you attempt to learn something that you don’t know, it is hard. The internal voice might say, “This is hard”, “I’m not as smart as I thought I was”, and “I can’t do this”. It is uncomfortable, awkward and that feeling of potential failure is something most of us like to avoid; however, this is exactly what learning new and unfamiliar content feels like. When learning gets hard, many people give up. Again the key is, as the advert says, “To get to easy, you have to go through hard”.

Michael McQueen, award-winning speaker, author and social researcher, explains a difference between Gen Y (born 1980s–2000s) and the earlier Baby Boomers and Gen X (born pre-1980s). He proposes that these earlier generations were taught that life is hard and life is unfair; toughen up and get over it. In contrast, those in Gen Y believe life is supposed to be easy. So why do they think life is easy?

Advertising tells us life is easy

Instant loans so you can buy what you like whenever you like; beauty products that will solve all your problems; gadgets to make life simple, such as vacuum cleaners that clean the floor automatically; ‘timesaving’ innovations, such as keyless cars, dishwashers, fast food, and just-add-water products; even ‘spray and wipe’ has been replaced with ‘wet and forget’! It’s all so easy…

Bubble-wrapped children

Teachers consistently tell me of parents who insist on doing everything for their child – from hanging up their bag at school to doing their homework for them. Just this week, I witnessed mums filling out 14 and 15-year-old boys’ registration forms at a workshop – presumably because it was quicker and neater to do it themselves. As Steve Gurney, nine-time winner of the Speight’s Coast to Coast race, advocates, our children should again be allowed to eat dirt, fail, fall or learn through experiences that can make them stronger and more resilient. Life is easy…

‘Everyone is equal’ philosophy

The current generation is growing up in such a politically correct world that everyone gets a ribbon for participation, whether they make an effort or not. The score is no longer kept when young children play sport. Everyone gets a prize when playing pass the parcel at birthdays. Schools are discussing whether honours boards should be taken down. It’s easy to get rewards…

Dumbing down of the curriculum 

Previous generations were required to learn the periodic table and now it is handed out to students. While I understand the logic of this – that it is the understanding of the concept rather than the memorisation of a concept that is important – it has perhaps robbed our students of the need to practice, repeat and memorise information. I recently asked a group of students if they could recall their best friend’s phone number – the overwhelming majority of students said, “No, it’s in my phone.”Learning is easy, the facts will be given to me…

Our children have been taught that life is easy in many other ways too.

“The challenge with this ‘life is easy’ sell,” says McQueen, “is that when life gets hard, young people either change their goal (leave school, change jobs, find a new partner, etc.) or they think they’re not good enough and their self-esteem plummets.”

Recently I was speaking to 120 scholarship students. They remarked that scholarship is hard. I smiled and said, “It is supposed to be – if it was easy, everyone would do it!” This was a revelation for so many of them.

I believe we have a huge responsibility as teachers and parents to ensure our children know that life can be hard, that they will fail and that life can be unfair. I’m not suggesting we prophesy doom and gloom; I’m simply saying that bad stuff will happen amongst the good.

Twentieth-century philosopher Buckminster Fuller said,

“Life is full of lessons to be learned. When you have learned one lesson, life will give you a bigger lesson.”

Have you noticed that? Once you get through a big challenge, you are given a bigger one to deal with. Challenges and life lessons never get easier.

How will children learn about winning and losing if they don’t experience it? How will they learn to take disappointment? What happens when they don’t get their way? How will they develop the skills of persistence – grit, resilience, responsible risk-taking, flexible thinking, creativity, and so on – if life and learning is always easy? In what ways might you go about helping students know that they need to go through hard to get to easy?

Karen Tui Boyes won NSANZ Educator of the Year in 2014 and the NSANZ Speaker of the Year in 2013.


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