Growth in the Classroom: The Importance of Differentiating ‘Suffering’ and ‘Challenging’

As an avid reader of humanist philosophy and literature, I have always had quite an affinity towards the notions of suffering and how it enables the individual to grow. We have seen great writers comment on this notion, in particular Nietzsche and Kundera who wrote often about the positive growth achieved from experiencing tragedy in some way.

In his first book, Nietzsche put forwards assertions to claim:

“Creating – that is the great salvation from suffering, and life’s alleviation. But for the creator to appear, suffering itself is needed, and much transformation.” – Thus Spoke Zarathustra

And also Kundera claims:

“I am not worthy of my suffering. A great sentence. IT suggests not only that suffering is the basis of the self, its sole indubitable ontological proof, but also that it is the one feeling most worthy of respect; the value of all values.” – Immortality

Both clearly arguing the importance of suffering in recognising the values that one should pursue and, indeed, pinning ‘suffering’ as the catalyst for self-transformation and growth.

Which brought me to question: If suffering is essential for one’s development, are educators then justified in facilitating suffering in the classroom? If so, how does that affect promoting a positive classroom climate?

While there will obviously be a divide in the way educators respond to this, I do believe that the ‘yes’ answer to the initial question constructs pedagogies that are tyrannical and fear-driven. Over the years, I have witnessed numerous teachers (both in my own student experience and as a colleague) who took to the role of a tyrant in their classrooms and used the excuse of suffering to justify their actions. Yes, the kids behaved. Yes, they received Ofsted ‘Outstanding’. But it was not through a genuine desire to learn that these students accomplished their work but rather from the threat/s of failing. These teachers even applauding themselves for their class’ results at the end of the year and yet did not recognise the confidence shattering effect that this style of education will have on their pupil thereafter. It includes some of the following actions which many of us can be aware of:

  • Instant detentions without discussion when not following rules.
  • Negative comments or threats if a pupil is off task.
  • Yelling or ‘telling off’ students not working without conversations.
  • Sending pupils out without attempting to develop a relationship.

All of these are examples of attempting to justify suffering in the education system for “the pupil’s best needs.” It is what we know, in simple terms as using a ‘well, the world’s a cruel place’ excuse; it is a short-term solution to good grades and league table ‘success’.

Interestingly, using suffering to justify being overworked by fear seems to also be present in the mind-set of teachers who use the same advice to cope with the overarching watchful eye of SLT or Ofsted. Some have seemed to use the philosophy of ‘suffering enables growth’ as their own attempt to survive with the tyrannical oppression of the state education system; one drowning in fear of failure, criticism and dystopian standardisation (more about that here). Essentially, we have developed a habit where we use suffering to justify fear-driven challenges rather than differentiating the notion of ‘challenging’ and ‘suffering’ entirely.

If we return to Nietzsche momentarily, I want to pick apart exactly what he’s saying. Despite the most common reading of him that usually recites he’s a “nihilist” who claimed “God is Dead!” without truly understanding the context of the quote, Nietzsche is actually quite romantic about the world could be. Nietzsche asserts this:

“It is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life. It is not only pleasant and agreeable images that he experiences with such universal understanding: the serious, the gloomy, the sad and the profound, the sudden restraints, the mockeries of chance, fearful expectations, in short the whole ‘divine comedy’ of life, the Inferno included, passes before him, not only as a shadow play – for he too lives and suffers through these scenes – and yet also not without that fleeting sense of illusion.” – The Birth of Tragedy

We see here that Nietzsche highlights that life is, at once, a blend of suffering and happiness. Or, rather, that the ‘light and dark’ of life coexist; symbiotically representing the most honest exertion of life. Moreover, on Neitzsche, Sefler recognises this to mean:

“Pain has no meaning ‘in itself,’ it is meaningful only in reference to suffering. If suffering were to disappear from the world, happiness would likewise disappear; that is, the happiness-suffering dimensions of life”.

Therefore, we can see that these philosophers believe suffering is necessary for self-transformation, however, this is achieved as suffering is essential in order to highlight the beauty in the world. It is a mechanism used to counterbalance goodness, to highlight happiness so we can recognise and appreciate the aspects of our lives that are consistent and beautiful. Suffering is the darkness that exacerbates the light. But that is not simply the ‘good grade’ after hours of work threats.

So let’s think about how we can apply that to the classroom. Even though the notion of suffering is certainly contextual and can range from extreme emotional pain to adolescent heartbreak, every teenager will believe they are suffering at some point, in some way. There are a list of things that could account as ‘suffering’ to them and could be as trivial as a boyfriend, friendship drama or home conflict. It should not matter how extreme this suffering is for the moment just simply that it serves its purpose to provide the chaos and calamity that one needs in order to grow.

When we justify tyrannical teaching approaches in the classroom, we are extending suffering beyond a child’s social life and into their intellectual life. Instead, we should be using their ‘outside’ suffering to highlight the light of something consistent, inspiring and beautiful – a positive and passionate classroom environment that will, therefore, build a symbiotic association between learning, safety and comfort. In doing so, students will hopefully also develop a self-motivated desire for learning.

That does not say that we remove ‘challenge’ from our classroom, but I am saying that ‘challenge’ should be driven by inspiration, passion and thirst – not fear. Of course, it is not always that students will desire to learn the Shakespearean Sonnets, but they should not feel threatened to accomplish it. This is not the way to develop young people into individuals passionate about education.

So, if suffering is essential for one’s development, are educators then justified in facilitating suffering in the classroom? No. Suffering is essential for life but as educators we need to use that suffering to provide a positive and thriving classroom that becomes the calm in the storm; the light in the darkness.

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7 thoughts on “Growth in the Classroom: The Importance of Differentiating ‘Suffering’ and ‘Challenging’

  1. Yeah, OK, body should tyrannise kids but that’s a straw man position which nobody occupies. But if we interpret suffering as something more nuanced than simply punishment and intimidation, then I’m not sure your arguments entirely justify your conclusions. What if suffering was interpreted as ‘struggle’? Isn’t this what Nietzsche is really talking about? That pleasure is gained through trial and effort? Certainly, there seems to be good reason for thinking that liminality is troubling, uncertain and unpleasurable, but, if grasped and explored, results in new and exciting ways of seeing the world.

    Maybe we need to exercise a spot of negative capability here? How can we hold pleasure and struggle in creative tension? That is very much the theme of my book. Get Carl to lend you his copy, if the pages aren’t too stuck together 🙂

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    1. Yeah I agree with you. I’m definitely defining suffering as punishment and intimidation strategies in this. Again, I don’t think we remove challenge or ‘grit’ at all. I do believe, however, particularly with the push for intrinsic motivation, that it’s impossible to be intrinsically motivated by fear-driven challenge or punishment. I guess, I’m highlighting the contradictory nature of educators who use punishment and suffering in an attempt to motivate – which is often, at times, simply an attempt to get short term results from their students. I think intrinsic motivation comes from exciting challenge. It will not always be easy to succeed in any aspect of life, but I think we can realise that nothing good ever is. This does not mean we have to approach a challenge in the classroom by being burdened or threatened.

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