You are probably wondering “Why does she want to cause friction when she’s teaching? Shouldn’t she be making things as easy as possible for her students?”. I can totally understand this line of thought as in the 21st century it’s all about making things easier: automating repetitive tasks (Zapier, IFTTT, etc.), telling Siri to order some washing detergent while we’re cooking dinner for friends, and (some time soon) having our self-driving car bring us to work while we’re getting prepared for the day.

We want things to be fast and smooth and that is exactly what a lot of people expect in a learning experience. The only problem: that is not the way our brain functions when building memories!

Imagine you are a barista at your local Starbucks and everyday you take the order of hundreds of customers. At the end of the day, how many of those people do you think you remember? All of them? Half of them? Well, most likely you will remember only those that really stood out because of something special they said or did. Why is that so? That is because if something is just simply normal or insignificant we won’t remember it in a couple of hours. As Julie Dirksen put it in her book Design for How People Learn: “If something doesn’t stand out for some reason, there’s a good chance it will just pass through without leaving much of a mark, like water through a pipe.”

Even though we all wish we could just simply sit in a class room and look at a bunch of slides and learn a new skill, that won’t actually make us experts at digital marketing, playing guitar or programming an algorithm in Python. We have to put in effort in order to learn a new skill, even if it’s difficult and can be somewhat frustrating at times. Julie writes: “Learning is messy, and interacting with and resolving that messiness can help embed the information into long-term memory. We want learners to engage with the material.”

Chanel teaching some students

When I started teaching at Master21 I created many “copy & paste” tutorials because we believed that the participants wanted to leave our course proud of the website or web app they built by using our tutorial. But based on the feedback by some participants and the aforementioned book, we strongly believe that simply following our tutorials is too smooth. That is why in the last couple of courses, I started giving the participants challenges to solve on their own. For example, I’ll tell them to code a landing page that contains certain elements all on their own. Logically I’m there to help them in case they get stuck. But these challenges make the learning experience more difficult (because they cause friction) and that at the end of the day helps them better retain the newly learned skills.

Now the key thing to do is to find the right balance between smooth and difficult: If the learning experience is too smooth our participants will not retain as much as they could. If it’s too difficult they will give up halfway through and not reach their full potential. So teaching is like living life in general:

It’s all about finding the right balance.