A simple change in language can show students how mistakes are useful and how struggle can be productive.
As a senior in high school, I tested into calculus. Math was never a subject for which I had any passion, but I’d done well enough the previous years to find myself in Mrs. M’s calculus class. As she taught, I would stare at the whiteboard in disbelief, comparing the number of letters versus numbers in the equations we were solving. At the start of class on a day we were reviewing derivatives, Mrs. M. smiled and said, “At least today should be pretty easy.”
I gripped my pencil hard in my fist as I worked on the review problems, getting confused by x and y, making small algebraic mistakes that led to the whole problem working out wrong. I tried and tried, but it wasn’t easy. I looked around the room, and it seemed like my classmates were blowing through the problems, so I kept my pencil in my fist and my eyes on the paper until the final bell.
Easy. It is a common word in education. Often, teachers will ask if the class wants an easy quiz or the hard quiz. They’ll give the option for an easy day or a day that presents a challenge. They’ll subtly suggest to a student that they can handle the work because it is “easy.” While often said in an encouraging undertone, the word easy can be dangerous for student success. Literally and figuratively a four-letter-word, “easy” can set students up for decreased self-esteem, reduced confidence, and failure to understand a subject. When a teacher refers to a subject as “easy,” they create a standard that not all students may be able to reach.
As teachers, we often pride ourselves as adaptable proponents of differentiated instruction, the inclusive classroom, and supporting students with diverse learning styles. Because we know that students’ abilities differ, we may inadvertently rank the material. When a teacher tells a struggling reader to finish a novel, a student with dyscalculia to work on their multiplication, or a student with severe social anxiety to complete an oral presentation, labeling these tasks as “easy” unintentionally hinders the student’s success.
When students hear that something is going to be “easy,” they feel excited to participate. Motivated and ready, they receive the assignment, and almost instantly, some hopes are dashed. Inevitably, not all students will find the activity easy, thus potentially causing those who struggle to feel inferior. Negative self-talk begins. “Why don’t I understand this? Am I stupid? What am I doing wrong? I thought this was supposed to be easy.” For fear of embarrassment or ridicule, these students are reluctant to reach out for help, leaving them with assignments unfinished and confidence levels plummeting. Instead of referring to an assignment as “easy,” here are better things we can say:
“Practice makes perfect.”
It may seem cliché or outdated, but the phrase “Practice makes perfect” is true. The more time and effort a student puts into a specific skill or process, the more likely they are to be successful using the skill. Encourage students to practice a skill—on their own, at home, in study groups with friends, or by staying after school—rather than minimizing or dismissing the students’ struggles with a particular subject.
“You are capable of completing this.”
All students, no matter their background, have areas in which they excel. Use an example of a time they did well to build their confidence. When I taught AP literature, a student who excelled in examining symbolism in plays had difficulty analyzing poetry. I reminded her that her writing was strong, and her instincts were good. I used a simple encouragement: “Your essay you wrote about A Streetcar Named Desire was fantastic. Try to use that same energy to dissect the poem.” Identifying students’ success allows them to feel more relaxed when approaching a subject that they find difficult. This simple rephrasing shows students that they have the necessary ability to achieve.
“It’s OK to struggle.”
If a student is having difficulty with a subject, share with them a time that the same thing happened to you. It doesn’t have to be the same subject or even the same grade level. I always tell my students about my battle with calculus because school came easy to me for the most part, but that class challenged me. Sharing the fact that I overcame it demonstrates commitment and reinforces the idea of the growth mindset. Remind students that the process of trial and error is the first step in overcoming any problem in or out of an academic setting. Showing students that they are not alone in this endeavor by reinforcing the idea that struggling is healthy allows for a deeper student-teacher connection that ultimately helps increase student success.
“This is easy for me—but I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Teachers slip up and say things by accident; we are only human. However, we can save the situation by adding an addendum to the standard phrasing. By adding “for me,” you open a dialogue with the student, explaining that you are the content area expert, so of course, it is easier for you. You’ve studied it for years and have had more practice than the student. Solidify the explanation by stating that it’s great if it’s easy for the student but absolutely normal if it’s not.
Removing or modifying the word “easy“ in instructional vocabulary, and replacing it with positivity and encouragement, shows students that mistakes are acceptable and struggle can be productive.