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31 Jan 2013

Difficulty: Better Retention, Deeper Understanding

KISS Principle Keeps Us Simply StupidLifting light weights with little effort doesn’t develop our muscles; lifting heavy weights with difficulty does. However, for some reason we believe the easier it is to absorb an idea the better the teaching is (i.e. KISS Principle – Keep It Simple Stupid). Knowledge isn’t power though; thought is. Our thinking processes are like our muscular ones: difficulty encourages their growth. They develop better when problems force us to think rather than to have us just goin’ through the motions.

Ian Leslie, in his article, “The Uses of Difficulty” (Intelligent Life, November/December 2012 edition), reinforces the importance of difficulty when he says:

In schools, teachers and pupils alike often assume that if a concept has been easy to learn, then the lesson has been successful. But numerous studies have now found that when classroom material is made harder to absorb, pupils retain more of it over the long term, and understand it on a deeper level.

We can also connect difficulty to a learning premise: people learn better by doing, not listening or watching. Thinking is doing for the mind. This is the basis of the Socratic Method; it encourages critical thinking. It makes our mind work.

Yet, how often do we hear:

  • I understand why you’re asking these questions, but can we just get to the point?
  • Let’s speed this up. Just tell me what I have to know.
  • Can you just send me your summary and conclusions?

As a result, people expect to get a healthy mind in the same way they expect to get a healthy body: without any effort or difficulty. The problem is that while our trainers tell us this is unrealistic for our bodies, the business world encourages it for our minds.


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