September 24, 2019 · cognitive science of learning theory

Learning is challenging. Sorry about that.

By Douglas O'Brien from Canada - IMGP2543, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In a recent Op-Ed for the NY Times, philosopher Michael P. Lynch notes that when people share material through social media, two things are probably true:

  1. They haven't read the material;
  2. They are sharing an emotional claim – "I'm outraged, and you should be, too!" – rather than a factual or knowledge claim – "X and Y are occurring."

His conclusion is that we misunderstand "fake news" and what happens online because we mistake our emotional state for a knowledge state. We tend to mix up feeling and knowing.

Compare this with a recent study (via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution) entitled "Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom" (link). The study finds that students feel they learn less in an active environment versus a passive (lecture-based) environment, when in fact the opposite is true: students learn more in an active learning environment.

Tyler Cowen's take-away is something like: this is more evidence that student evaluations are bunk and we shouldn't use them to evaluate teachers at all. Doing so only promotes inferior teaching methods. Just so. But the idea I take from this, alongside Lynch's reminder about how online sharing functions, is: there is a measurable difference between how we feel about something and what it actually is, and this difference can either be useful or it can be an obstacle.

Everyone can fall prey to this difference, especially when it comes to effort. Effort is by definition hard to sustain. Not to paint with too broad a brush, but entertainment is so close at hand these days, activities requiring serious effort are that much more difficult to promote as "better." It's becoming more difficult to argue that reading the book is better than watching the movie. (It's always been difficult to make these arguments, granted.) For creative or deep thought, there simply is no straight line from beginning to end. Time and focus are quite simply required, and the feeling we get when we expend time and focused energy on a problem or a project should be some version of discomfort. Learning, like every activity worth doing, should not be easy. By definition it cannot be.

This is not to say that learning and creating and deep thought cannot be simultaneously pleasurable. (For example, one reads about the concept of "flow".) But the discomfort associated with challenge, resistance, and effort are part of what forces our brains and our bodies to adapt to novel situations.

When it comes to learning, students and teachers should know the following:

  1. Learning is difficult and will make you uncomfortable in various ways.
  2. Sustained, active effort is required for the best kinds of learning and creating.
  3. There are fairly well-documented aspects of cognitive performance – such as spacing, interleaving, spatializing memories (the "memory palace"), and so on – that should guide educational practices.

How students and teachers feel about those knowledge claims, well... it doesn't much matter, except insofar as their feelings are obstacles to progress.