“Why are we doing this? It’s hard!” “I tried to do research but didn’t find anything after thirty minutes so I gave up. This is too difficult.” “Why are we reading this? No one can understand it.” These are the types of complaints regularly raised by students struggling through new ideas or with new types of work. They find that their old methods for approaching their work are no longer viable. They realize that they thought they knew about a topic, but it is really larger and more complex than they imagined. They do not understand something they read, so they are tempted to give up. They have other commitments, other things they want to do. So why put time into their classwork? Why struggle when things could be made easy for them?
Sometimes it seems as if we have forgotten what school is all about. Students sometimes seem to approach classes as if they are opportunities for the students to prove what they know, receive the “A,” and continue on through the school system. But classes are not supposed to validate an individual’s knowledge. Classes are supposed to teach things. Students are assumed to be in the class precisely because they do not know about a topic or how to do certain things, but they are intending to learn. Indeed, I would suggest that anyone taking a class on something they are already expert in, is potentially wasting their time.
If we consider classes as learning opportunities, it makes sense that students will sometimes struggle. Learning something new is seldom easy and it often requires some failures along the way. Good instructors know this. They are not ignorant of the fact that students find Shakespeare difficult and sometimes indecipherable–that is why they are guiding the students through the process. If Shakespeare were so easy anyone could read him at home and know everything there was to know, an instructor and a class would not be necessary at all. Attending the class would again, potentially be a waste of time.
We should also keep in mind that struggle often makes something more valuable. We should be struggling a little when we learn because that is an indication that we are acquiring specialized skills. If doing research were as simple as typing a word into a search engine and pulling up the first couple results, anyone with Internet access could do it and students would have a difficult time marketing themselves for potential employers. How could students be proud of accomplishing something if doing something took no effort? How could they justify spending their time and money to take courses that did not provide them with anything valuable, either personally or professionally?
Anxiety about the economy and the competition to find jobs or to earn advanced degrees may be causing students to feel stressed out when they cannot do something quickly or when they realize that they are not achieving high grades with the ease that they used to. However, we need to have a conversation about what education is and how it fits into students’ lives. Education isn’t just about receiving the “A” so students can continue on to other opportunities. Education is about earning the “A” through hard work and some failures. It’s the hard work that makes those years of learning worth it.