Thursday, December 16, 2010

Never Say Its Easy

I used to try to alleviate my students’ stress level by telling them that what they were about to learn would be easy.  I had good intentions . . . I just wanted them to relax a little and trust me.  It was a bad idea.

This played out for real in my most recent unit on radicals.  My Algebra II kids always struggle with this.  Square roots aren’t so bad, but when you throw in cubed roots and beyond plus rationalizing the denominator and solving radical equations . . . well, they struggle.  So, this time around I told them how hard it was going to be.  Brace yourselves, I told them.  You are going to have to work harder than you have ever worked to figure this stuff out. 

They killed it.  Highest scores EVER.

So then I realized that telling them it is easy sets up a lose/lose situation for students.  One of two things is going to happen:

1.     They’re successful, but it is no big deal.  Who is proud of being successful with something that is supposed to be easy?
2.     They’re not successful, and it is depressing.  Not only were you unsuccessful, you were unsuccessful with something that your teacher says should have been a piece of cake.

Telling them it is hard sets up more of a win/break even situation:

1.     They’re successful, and they can be proud of it.  They just accomplished the impossible!
2.     They’re not successful.  But after all, it was hard.

I am going to try to stop saying anything is easy.


  1. I used to never say "this is easy" but this year I've caught myself saying it a few times. Thanks for reminding me......

    This is exactly why I try to avoid it: '2. They’re not successful, and it is depressing. Not only were you unsuccessful, you were unsuccessful with something that your teacher says should have been a piece of cake."


  2. Thank you, Sam! Perhaps "stating the obvious" is going to become the theme of my blog.

  3. Awesome post. I'm new to the blogging community, and I really like your writing. It's relate-able for me as a new teacher.

    This post in particular resonates with me because of an experience I had with a fellow teacher and friend during student teaching. He was at school working one-on-one with a student, when he said to the student, "Come on, you can do this one, this is easy," when the student replied "Not for me." My friend came back from school that day completely beside himself. He was so upset with himself because of how he made that student feel for not getting the concept on the first shot. I pictured my friend and I could hear him telling me about that student while I read your post.

  4. Thank you, Mrs. R! Welcome! I am pretty new here, too. It has been the best (and free) professional development of my career.

  5. Yeah, stopping yourself from saying "Oh, this will be easy, don't worry" is so counter-intuitive to what feels natural. Once I stopped myself from that bad habit (NOT EASY), I realized that I didn't want any of my students to say "Oh, this is easy!" either. Because it makes the students who aren't finding it easy feel stupid. Which, if you think about it, is a form of bullying. I have, from time to time, even given a student a one minute waiting detention at the end of class for saying "Oh, this is easy!" But usually, just explaining my reasons for refraining from that phrase, as well as a few gentle reminders for the first few weeks, will do the trick.

    Great blog, btw! Looking forward to reading more of it.

    Paul Hawking
    The Challenge of Teaching Math
    Latest post:
    My grad project on underachieving gifted students

  6. Thank you for commenting, Paul! I like that you extend this rule to your students. I have given a stern sideways look to a student who has said "this is easy" (depending on the tone of course, some are just genuinely excited that they find it to be easy), but I've never taken the time to explain to the student why it isn't okay. Amy