How often do you hear this phrase applied to a pupil, as though it were a problem? It isn’t. Struggle is normal. Struggle is in fact necessary for learning. The more we grapple with difficult things, the more likely we are to remember them.
How did ‘struggle’ get such a bad name? Could it be that somewhere along the line we began to believe that learning should be effortless? That’s certainly the logical conclusion of naturalism, one of the defining progressive doctrines: the notion that learning happens naturally, like a flower unfurling, and all the teacher needs to do is stand back and watch the lovely results appear. Naturalism is closely linked to developmentalism: the idea that children should be allowed to progress ‘at their own pace’, as though there were some natural age for learning the inherently unnatural skills of reading and writing. E D Hirsch points out that developmentalism has led many to ‘repudiate as unnatural the significant effort that all learning requires, whether it is painful or joyful’ (The Schools We Need, p89-90).
The negative view of struggle also comes from the tendency to believe that ability is something we are born with, more than something we develop. Therefore if you are struggling, it just proves you’re incapable. The word frequently appears in statements of special educational needs, which all too often lead to less being expected of pupils. Then “He really struggles with . . .” is actually a euphemism for “We can’t really expect him to be able to . . .”
Struggle is vital to building character. Continuing to persevere when something is difficult builds fortitude, one of the four great human virtues identified by Aristotle. But if our pupils are supposed to go ‘at their own pace’, then it is wrong to make them work harder than they feel like working. We must simply allow them to remain slaves to their whims and emotions.
If struggle is avoided, if we design ‘schemes of learning which allow pupils to jump from one feel-good performance to the next’ (Wrong Book, p316), then they not only end up ignorant, they end up arrogant. They end up believing that everything should be served up to them on a plate, and if something is difficult, they are justified in giving up and blaming their teacher for failing to ‘make learning fun’.