Desirable Difficulty

Volume VII, #22

We’re losing too many great musicians. Last year it was David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and Prince. So far this year: Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, and Fats Domino. But in my home country of Canada, none of these greats hold a candle to a musician we lost last month, although you’ve probably never heard of him.

Gord Downie was the lyricist and lead singer of The Tragically Hip. If an entire nation could have a house band, The Hip was Canada’s. The New York Times obituary comes close to approximating how Canadians feel about Gord. “The place of honor that Mr. Downie occupies in Canada’s national imagination has no parallel in the United States. Imagine Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe combined into one sensitive, oblique poet-philosopher, and you’re getting close.” Upon his death from brain cancer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weeped openly, saying “he loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country, and he wanted to make it better… we are less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”

Why do Canadians love Gord and The Hip so much? Well for one, for a nation that – throughout its short history – has searched for an identity, often resorting to defining itself in polite contrast to its larger, muscular southern neighbor, Gord did more than anyone in the past quarter century to give Canada a positive identity and voice. Canada didn’t need to be about independence or freedom (or guns!). We learned we could find our identity in smaller things – things that we loved.

Gord wrote and sang about the beauty of the Canadian prairie in songs like Wheat Kings (which starts with the call of a loon) and At The Hundredth Meridian. He told the story of Canadian sailors in World War II in Nautical Disaster, a song that’s both a dream and a reflection on the tragic Canadian raid on Dieppe (“One afternoon / Four thousand men / Died in the water / Here”). He frequently sang of our love for the environment, including in his masterpiece Ahead By A Century. And as often as not, he sang about hockey: In Fifty Mission Cap (a song about a strange story he read on the back of hockey card); in The Lonely End Of The Rink; and in Fireworks, which tells every Canadian boy’s story of how an interest in girls makes them slightly less obsessed about hockey (“You held my hand and we walked home the long way / You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr”).

If this is news to you, it’s because The Hip barely made a splash in the U.S. While they would sell out (hockey) arenas north of the border, they’d be lucky to fill a small club in the States. At one concert in a small club in New Haven, my brother got up on stage and sang with them; there simply weren’t that many people there.

Their unsuccessful struggle to get noticed in the U.S. was a big part of what made them Canada’s band. It caused Gord to delve deeper into what makes Canada Canada. And for most Canadians, it encapsulated a nation that is ignored by the superpower next door. Gord’s legacy is a catalog that paints a picture of a liberal, fun-loving country that the world (including – or especially – international students) has begun to really appreciate over the last year, not to mention an emotional homage on that most Canadian of programs, Hockey Night in Canada.

Gord departs knowing he helped us learn what it was to be Canadian. Thanks to Gord, a community in search of an identity and voice found them. And if there's anything more worthwhile, I'd like to know what it is.


While Canadians learned more from a rock band than anyone thought possible, in our institutions dedicated to higher education, there may be less learning than anyone thought possible. By filing public records requests at 100 public colleges and universities, the Wall Street Journal obtained test results from 68 institutions for the College Learning Assessment Plus, a cognitive test administered to freshmen and seniors by about 200 colleges and universities. The Journal found that one-third of seniors are unable to make a coherent argument, interpret data in a table, or assess the quality of evidence in a document. While the majority of students demonstrated some measurable progress in critical thinking, some flagship universities like UT Austin and University of Kentucky showed little improvement. And at universities like University of Louisiana at Lafayette, three-quarters of seniors demonstrated critical thinking skills that fell in the “basic” or “below basic” categories. Nationwide, CLA reports that 40% of seniors fall into these two lowest categories.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) surveys hundreds of thousands of American college students on their attitudes towards higher education. According to NSSE, only 10% of students are fully engaged. Somewhere between 20-40% of students are fully disengaged. The remainder are in the middle. These numbers are consistent with the findings of Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, who in their 2011 book Academically Adrift reported that more than one-third of students failed to materially improve critical thinking and writing capabilities over the course of their college experience.

Colleges and universities can learn something from Gord Downie. While Gord thrived artistically as result of the challenges he faced, colleges and universities may not be challenging enough. Students study on average for 12 hours per week. A third study less than five hours per week. Few courses demand that students read more than 40 pages per week, or write 20-page papers. The Heritage Foundation has calculated that the average college student spends 2.76 hours per day on education-related activities, but 4.4 hours per day on leisure activities “not including shopping, grooming, personal care, housework, cooking, or eating.”

Increasing challenge in order to increase learning is at the core of Robert Bjork’s important work on Desirable Difficulty. Bjork has demonstrated that introducing difficulties into the learning process can improve long-term retention of knowledge and skills. For example, adding low-stakes assessments, spacing and interleaving rather than massing practice, varying settings, and even making materials less organized and harder to read have all been shown to improve learning, as long as the additional challenges don’t discourage students (hence “Desirable Difficulty”). It’s also why David Lenihan of Ponce Health Sciences University touts the “Dynamic Classroom” as the future of higher education: not only flipping the classroom so students watch the lecture before coming to class, but integrating formative assessments into the flip so faculty know what concepts students haven’t mastered – then using active learning methods in class to improve understanding. Both require more work on the part of faculty and students. Both significantly improve learning. Unfortunately, to date Bjork and Lenihan are about as well known in the U.S. as The Tragically Hip.


Gord Downie wrote about Canada. Readers of this column know that I write about the new employment imperative in higher education: how what matters more than anything to today’s students is a good first job – reaching the first rung of the ladder leading to a viable career. A few months ago, I found myself under attack on what’s referred to as “Academic Twitter.” Several academics found “outrageous” the notion that aligning curriculum with employer needs was a goal that faculty members shared. One prominent professor with an army of over 21,000 followers said “Sorry, that isn't a shared goal. It is a questionable goal, in fact.” She then went on to dismiss the notion that students are focused on employment, saying “the research shows today’s students consider community and family [not employment].” Another professor who was more accepting of the notion that students might care about getting a good first job said, “That's a labor-market problem that is not going to be solved by the educational system.”

I recognize there are hundreds of thousands of faculty and administrators at American (and Canadian) colleges and universities who feel this way. To these committed educators, I say the following. If you’re going to try to fight the employment imperative, better clad yourself in the science of learning. Take a look at what Ponce is doing and transform your old lectures into a dynamic classroom. Or engage Lasting Learning, a consultancy focused on integrating Desirable Difficulty into academic programs. Otherwise you risk coming across as an entitled dinosaur, interested in teaching what you like and how you like, without regard to the welfare of students. And that’s not the kind of polite behavior we like to see in Canada, or any other civil society for that matter.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. Apprenticeships 2.0 Washington Post article on how apprenticeships will grow faster for “new collar” jobs than traditional blue collar industrial or building trade jobs, and implying that equating apprenticeships with blue collar jobs will delay the emergence of this faster + cheaper alternative to college, by Jena McGregor. The college-for-all mentality has become a U.S. mantra, making higher education the default training ground for white-collar jobs. Nancy Hoffman, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future, says “apprenticeship” has had something of a stigma. “The instant you say it, parents say ‘I don’t want my kid to be a plumber,’ ” she says. But that sentiment could be changing. A newly released survey by New America found that 88 percent of Americans had a favorable view of apprenticeship and 83 percent said they support increased government funding for them. Read more 2. Government Can Be The Problem Washington Examiner report on how 11 states will meet next month to discuss how to reduce occupational licensing requirements, by Sean Higgins. A 2015 study by the Brookings Institution found there were "far more cases" in which licensing reduced employment than ones where it improved the quality and safety of services. The restrictions have resulted in 2.8 million fewer jobs nationally and raised consumer costs by $203 billion annually, Brookings found. Read more 3. Investing For Real Impact: Expect A Real Return Impact Alpha piece on impact investing’s false choice between financial return and social impact, by Daniel Pianko.
The lexicon needs to change. Dollars allocated to opportunities that do not create market rate of return should simply be characterized as donative. Managers seeking donative or concessionary capital for speculative theses should stop using the term “impact investment.”… Impact investments should describe a category held accountable for both social impact and financial returns. We are at an inflection point in a growing number of areas where an impact orientation is fueling better-than-market returns. Read more