Friction in education

I was lucky enough to attend TEDxWaterloo the other week. There were lots of great talks given through out the course of day, but there is one that has stood above all the others; Terry O’Reily’s discussion about ‘friction in advertising’.

The central premise of his talk was that if things are too easy, people question it. We(people) need to struggle to accept something. Examples cited include instant cake mix (not being too instant) and antibiotic ointment. The one example he didn’t mention, but would be easy to draw from his talk, would be that of Buckley’s cough syrup. Buckley’s is trusted by many, because of the fact it tastes bad. If it tasted like water, people would not believe its helping because they aren’t suffering. The took the foul taste of their syrup, and made it the centre of their advertising campaign; “Buckley’s, it tastes bad, but it works”.

It’s anti-intuitive, but People need inconvenience.

Friction is about us asserting control.

Frictionless education is, what I imagine what the majority of people would think we should strive for. Industries have grown around this, most notably the edutainment sector. This sector is about making education ‘painless’, but its also, often about making learning secondary. “They are having so much fun, they don’t even know they are learning”. Are they really learning or are they just pattern matching?

I don’t remember ever being challenged/struggling in elementary school, but I did learn my multiplication tables through memorization, I learned my provinces through matching shapes to name. It wasn’t until grade 11 when I started to struggle in school— manly because I wasn’t asked to ‘know’ anymore, but to ‘know why’. As a result, I had to learn to be a hard worker and to ‘put the time in’.  My marks dropped, and stayed low but I gained and retained some knowledge to this day. I’m sure the only reason I retained anything is because I struggled to learn it.

I think to many people are giving up when the struggle comes along.  It seems, that we’ve become a society that, while in search of the holy grail of fictionless education, have adopted the mantra of “its hard, drop it and take the path of least resistance”. By making these compromises with ourselves and our education have we hurt our ability to learn?

If so, can we change this path? Once someone has been pushed through the no-fail grade school, and (in Ontario), the ‘you have to work to fail’ high school system, have we adequately prepared them for the real world? But creating a culture that feels its a right, not a privilege, to get post-secondary education, have we cheapen the whole system? By removing the friction, that often is the reason to learn study skills, have we weaken the chances for post-secondary education? Are we going to force it to have a lower standard for success?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. Only my observations and thoughts, most of which spin out of the fact that I believe education is a key part of the foundation for any successful society. A failure of the system is a failure for us all.

I do know that the next time I work on making programming for kids that has a high edutainment value, I’m going to be struggling with this very question: am I providing a disservice to our future, by denying the role that friction has?

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