Phenomenology Online

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Difficulty in the Lifeworld of the Child


Oldham, Val


To our life according
To that principle which counsels us
That we must always hold to the difficult
Then that which now still seems to us
The most alien will become what we
Most trust and find most faithful. (R. M. Rilke)


It seems like you’re never going to understand it and then you think to yourself, “Forget it, I’ll never know. It doesn’t matter.” Then I’m just not concentrating on what she’s saying after that. I’m getting farther and farther and farther apart. I usually feel like walking out right about then because it’s so frustrating. But it’s not good because usually it just gets you in the sort of mood that you don’t feel like doing anything for the rest of the class because you’re so upset about that one thing.

This is a description, obtained from Jody, a Biology 30 student, of her lived experience of difficulty in the classroom. She tells of the deep frustration she feels when she is unable to understand what the teacher is presenting and of the effect this has on her being in the classroom. Students are constantly experiencing difficulty in our classrooms. This paper questions the meaning of difficulty; how it appears as a form of life both outside and inside classrooms; its significance in our lifeworlds and those of our students. It asks: What is the role of the good pedagogue in this regard? What should we be mindful of and what should we strive towards when we and the pupils in our classes are confronted with various forms of difficulty?


As a beginning point, we can turn to the words “difficult” and “difficulty” themselves. They have their etymological roots in the Latin dificile and dificultas. Dificile comes from difacile, di denoting negation, facile meaning easy. Thus difficult means not easy. It is interesting to note the dialectic between difficulty and ease as illustrated both in the roots of the term difficult and in dictionary definitions. A dictionary may define “ease” as freedom from pain, trouble, constraint or worry, and easy as not difficult. In contrast, “difficulty” is defined as difficultness, difficult point or situation, obstacle, effort needed for removal of obstacles; and difficult as hard to do or practice, or deal with or understand, not easy.


Ease thus appears as a form of freedom from something, namely difficulty, and carries a positive connotation, whereas difficulty appears as a phenomenon which will require a struggle or effort on the part of the experiencing subject. It brings with it a negative connotation. Difficulties are said to be overcome, resolved, or mastered, and yet they are not really things. Difficulty is rather a form of life, a mode of being in the world, one which we all experience. Being in difficulty demands some form of action from the experiencing ego and is manifest as a presence which requires attention. If ease is a form of freedom from constraint, difficulty is a lack of freedom, an imposition or constraint of some description. Difficulties, thus, challenge us; they make demands on the experiencing ego. Part of me is called by the difficulty. I am challenged to show myself, and through such challenges I am given the opportunity to reach a deepened awareness and knowledge of self. In contrast, easy situations do not challenge the self and are therefore associated with surface-ness.


It is interesting to question what a life without difficulty would be like, although difficulty is always found in life. However, if life without difficulty were possible, we would be condemned to living at the surface; we would never be given the opportunity to penetrate beneath the uppermost layer of our being. The meaning in life would be glossed, for does not difficulty itself give us a sense of what life is? In this regard, Rilke (1975) writes of “the surface of life covered with incredibly dull material, like salon furniture during a summer vacation.” If life were always easy, it could promote a very superficial approach to the way in which it is lived.


If difficulty were not present even horizonally as possibility, we could never be presented with it as an option. Dostoevsky (1975) writes:

What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and having it almost in the darkness. (p. 67)

Kierkegaard ( 1975) also describes our occasional desire for difficulty:

For when all combine in every way to make everything easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely that the ease becomes so great that it becomes altogether too great; then there is only one want left, though it is not yet a felt want, when people will want difficulty. (p. 86)

And Nietzsche (1975) expresses his belief in the ability of difficult situations to deepen our sense of being, when he states:

For believe me, the secret of greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into unchartered seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves. (p. 127)

The elimination of the possibility of difficulty would thus promote a superficial existence. It would allow us to hurry through life without stopping to reflect on who and where we are, who and where we want to be.


Difficulty appears to us in life in a variety of forms. It is always present and, when we are experiencing it, it may not appear thematically. That is to say, although we may be conscious of difficulty, this consciousness may be present in a background way. In our naive attitude, the experience of difficulty may thus be present as a precognitive and alingual phenomenon, and it is only on reflection that we are able to say “Yes, that was difficult. ”


The types of difficulties that confront us in our everyday lives vary. Some are superficial: for example, the car not starting on a cold morning, finding out there is no shampoo in the house when we want to wash our hair. Such examples illustrate what might otherwise be termed life’s little nuisances. They present themselves as trivial difficulties, which demand some form of resolution in the short term, and are concerned only with the very surface layers of our being in the world. In this form, the difficulty is in the doing and does not penetrate beneath the naive ego; it does not touch us in our depths, nor is it present in our experience in a constant and enduring fashion. Such difficulties appear at a particular moment in time; they require solutions which demand little of us and are quickly forgotten.


A similar form of difficulty, although somewhat less easy to deal with, is exemplified by tasks such as climbing a mountain with a sprained ankle, quitting smoking, dieting, and going on a survival course. Again the difficulty is in the doing or the being able to do something and appears as a temporary phenomenon.


A more serious form of difficulty arises in the case of the loss of health or bereavement: the parents whose child has been killed in a car accident, the young boy who falls out of a tree while playing and will henceforth be confined to a wheelchair, the wife who learns that her husband has committed suicide, the recent widow. Difficulties such as these reveal a more profound nature in that they challenge us, at a deeper level, to go beyond ourselves, to reveal ourselves. The difficulty calls us forward to move beyond our present selves and become what we are not-yet. Ortega y Gasset (1975) describes humans as beings that consist in not-yet-being, and such difficulties draw us forwards towards the realization of the not-yet. They challenge us to fulfill as-yet-unfulfilled possibilities and invite us to penetrate ever deeper towards the grounds of our being: to fill the gap between what we are and what we could become, between what we have achieved and what is still to achieve. Profound difficulties such as these call us to reveal ourselves and can be seen as life’s way of challenging us to be virtuous, courageous, patient, tolerant, whatever qualities are demanded of us by the circumstances.


Perhaps the most difficult difficulty of all, and one which occupies an important place in existentialist thought, is the question of the finiteness of human existence. What does it mean to live and die? We know intuitively that we were born and that some day we will die. How do we make sense of this? How can we accept it in the depths of our being? A difficulty such as this confronts us not temporarily but in an enduring manner. It is always with us though we may choose not to acknowledge it.


Frankl (1962), in writing about his experience in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, describes how sometimes we may have no choice about our difficulties or suffering, but points out how we are free to choose our attitude to them. He writes:

What matters above all is the attitude we take toward suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves.

Although there may be no freedom from difficulty, we are always free to choose our approach to it. We are faced with making choices and decisions throughout our lives. How we experience difficulty can thus be viewed as a way of creating ourselves; our actions are statements both of ourselves and our being in the world. Through our encounter with difficulty, we can come to a deeper sense of self. We are given the possibility of moving “to the edges,” of achieving as-yet-unfulfilled possibilities, growing beyond ourselves. Rilke (1975) writes of the “jubilation that swells up behind everything difficult,” the sense of achievement that comes through the knowledge that we have overcome the difficulty. It is evident, thus, that difficulty can be viewed as a valuable and significant experience in life.


On the other hand, as shown initially through scrutiny of its etymological roots, difficulty carries with it negative connotations. It is more usually seen as something bad, as a struggle which we would rather be without. Given, along with the possibility of growth and movement beyond our present position, is the pain and the anguish that often accompanies difficulty as a mode of being in the world. It may be of a superficial nature which does not touch the roots of our being, or it may be of a more profound nature that challenges the self in its central core. The pain, the struggle that is experienced, may last but momentarily or it may endure a lifetime.


Difficulty is essentially an individual, subjective, and emotional experience. The difficulty presents itself to a particular individual. It is his or hers; in this, he or she is alone. Although we can discuss the difficulties that confront us in life, they are essentially difficulties for me or for you. We may experience similar forms of difficulty, yet the way in which that difficulty appears to each of us in life varies. It is part of our being in the world; the difficulty is presented in our relationship with the world and we each have to come to terms with it.


Difficulties can be denied or acknowledged. As they are experienced, we may not thematize them, thus we may be only horizonally aware of them, or we may choose to deny them. Admitting to certain forms of difficulty carries with it a stigma, and individuals may fear that the problem they are having is a reflection of personal inadequacies. In this case, such difficulties are often denied by the consciously experiencing ego. Another form which denial of diflculty may take is a deferral or postponement of the difficulty. Some difficulties cannot be postponed; they are immediate and demand action in the present, while others are amenable to this form of denial. Derrida (1981) describes the notion of differance as an active or passive deferring by means of delay, reprieve or postponement and this notion can be seen as relevant to the experiencing of difficulty. In a similar manner, we may deny the difficulty once we have lived through and overcome it. We look back and say, “No, that wasn’t really difficult.”


Another example of denial of difficulty is given by Tennessen (1967) when he writes of suification. He states that filling our lives with hebetants such as work, religion, alcohol, drugs, and everydayness gives us a false sense of ontological security and helps to smother the existential unease raised up by questioning the meaning of life. If, as stated earlier, our finiteness presents us with the most profoundly troubling difficulty of all, it is perhaps little wonder that we turn away from it, choosing instead “a fraudulent, illusory life, lived in a pleasant self-deception” (p. 189). Tennessen compares the individual who seeks out such forms of “permanent sedation” with “the happy-go-lucky pig, grunting with whole-hearted contentment and a complete peace of mind, with no demands beyond the garbage, a ‘vital’ and ‘useful’ life in unawareness of his existence and destiny” (p. 199). Scheler also describes the safe and busy way of life that pushes back from consciousness the intuitive certainty of death, until what is left is mere rational knowledge of it.


It appears, therefore, that it is possible to deny the existence of difficulty in our lives. Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre makes the same point when he describes how modern man lives his life in a trance, so caught up with the doing of often trivial tasks that he loses sight of some of the more important questions of being. Turning one’s back on difficulty can thus be seen as a form of “taking the easy way out.” The difficulty is denied; attempts are made to convince oneself that there is no difficulty. The individual exhibits inertia rather than a movement forward involving the staking out of new paths, albeit painful at times. It we seek to live our lives authentically, we must learn to face up to the difficulties that confront us at the deeper levels of our being, as well as those which are easiest to deal with because they concern the surface of our existence: for, as Epictetus states, “It is difficulties that show what men are. ”


Students at all levels of schooling experience difficulties in the classroom. This section asks how such difficulties appear in the lifeworld of students and questions the role of a good pedagogue in this regard. Most curriculum literature on difficulty holds an implicit assumption that difficulty is bad and should be eliminated from the lives of students. It focuses on difficulty as objectively measured on achievement tests and pays little, if any, attention to it as a subjective and meaningful experience, a form of living life. This approach seeks causal explanation for difficulty as measured in terms of concept development and often recommends the elimination of difficulty either by changing course content or teaching methods. This reflects an inherent belief that it is both possible and desirable to eradicate difficulty. We need to look more closely at both these assumptions and question whether they may not be unrealistic and detrimental to the becoming of students. Bauman (1978) writes, “The image of happiness is always generalized, as the elimination of specific suffering is seen as eradication of all suffering” (p. 194). So it is with the predominant curriculum orientation to ease and difficulty. The elimination of specific difficulties is seen as the eradication of all difficulties, whereas this is rather an idealistic impossibility.


Difficulty is always present in life as a possibility. Thus, it will always be found in some form in the classroom. Even if certain parts of the curriculum are revised or removed, there will still be students who experience difficulty in their relationship with the subject matter. Although difficulty is not restricted to the cognitive domain, its appearance in this context will form the focus for the present discussion.


The approach which seeks to eliminate difficulty denies that it can be a valuable and meaningful lived experience. It suggests that we, as teachers, should protect students from this aspect of being-in-the-world, and, as such, it seeks to deny them a particular mode of existence, one which forms an essential aspect of life. It suggests that learning should be made easy for students, that the difficulty should be taken out of life. If education attempts to prepare students for life and life is filled with difficulties of various forms, we cannot hope to begin to achieve this if we seek to “sanitize” their school experiences. How ironic it is that by adopting this type of approach we try to protect children from difficulties in school, yet the same children, whose parents may have recently separated, are living through their own ”difficulties.” Is it not our responsibility as good pedagogues to allow students the encounter with difficulty and to help them through such experiences? In this way, they will come to learn that difficulty is an ever-present aspect of being in the world, one which can give them the opportunity to grow beyond themselves and to gain a deeper sense of self.


Difficulty appears in the classroom in a variety of forms, but perhaps one of the most common is the difficulty experienced in trying to understand something. Research with high school biology students has revealed themes such as being confused, being lost, trying to clear things up, making sense, fitting things together, grasping it, and figuring it out. The lived experience of difficulty occurs when things do not fit together, do not make sense, when they are not grasped or cannot be figured out. Underlying such descriptions of incomprehension (Bauman, 1978) is the strong sense of frustration that these students experience. The difficulty that they perceive calls them forth to make sense, to understand the subject matter in question; it challenges them to reveal themselves in the stuggle with it. But it is hard.


The following descriptions of encounters with difficulty illustrate the strong sense of frustration experienced by some students.

One night I was studying, or trying to, and I opened the textbook intending to maybe jot down some notes. Reading what the text said made me extremely frustrated. The text is so condensed with huge terms, scientific language, that I didn’t know what the hell was going on… I hate that textbook. I’m no professor and I sure think I really need to know half that stuff they throw at you. If it was much more simple and basic and smaller steps, then maybe I wouldn’t have thrown my text on the floor. Seriously, I know then I wouldn’t give up so easily.

This description is particularly powerful since it reflects the student’s deep sense of anger and frustration at the text, and the last sentence suggests that at least some of this is directed against herself. It is also interesting to note that the description was given three days after the experience, but it was clear from her words and her tone of voice that the anger she experienced had, in a deep sense, remained with her. Another student offered the following when asked to describe her lived experience of difficulty in the classroom:

I have a terrible fear of speaking in front of the class so I live with constant difficulty and fear of being asked for an answer.

Difficulty appears in these examples as a being-unable-to-do. The students could not understand, could not speak in front of the class. These decriptions illustrate the appearance of frustration and fear as aspects of the subjective, lived experience of difficulty. In view of the agonizing struggles expressed by these and other students, it is crucial to explore whether difficulties such as these can be justified and to question the role of the good pedagogue in this context. It has been suggested that difficulty can provide us with the opportunity for growing beyond ourselves, for lessening the gap between what we presently are and what we wish to become. It can challenge us, make demands on us, so that we reach a deepened sense of self, show who and what we really are by the attitude we adopt to the difficulty. On the other hand, we need to question whether such difficulties are, in fact, life’s way of challenging us to be virtuous or whether, instead, they result in needless fear and frustration on the part of our students. Unless we can show the possible value of such experiences in the lifeworlds of students, perhaps we are unable to justify them.


Our role as teachers is a special one since we are entrusted with the care of a number of young, growing individuals. We are responsible for the nurturing of developing human beings and, thus, we need to be conscious of the experiences of difficulty in our classrooms, constantly assessing their possible significance. It seems likely that some classroom difficulties can be described as authentic and justifiable while others cannot. The above quotations from high school biology students were obtained while they were studying the “most difficult” unit in the Biology 30 curriculum, cellular respiration. This unit involves a tremendous amount of intricate detail of specific chemical reactions and compiex vocabulary. Most of the material requires memorization and is perceived by students not only as difficult but also as uninteresting and irrelevant to their everyday lives. In view of this, the pedagogue needs to pose the question: Can these difficulties be justified? Do they present students with the possibility of meaningful growth, or are they basically a waste of both the teacher’s time and the students’ time? Does the subject matter matter? Are the questions asked authentic? Do they show the student the world, or are they really no one’s questions? The teacher knows the answers; the students do not care. Do the difficulties, in any genuine sense, belong to the students? Are they truly their difficulties?


As good pedagogues we also need to be mindful of the level of the difficulties which students encounter. Students should be presented with subject matter that challenges them in a meaningful way. It should be neither too easy for them nor impossibly difficult. If the latter is the case, they are unlikely even to attempt their studies in any serious way and will soon give up hope. A suitable level of presentation and involvement must be chosen so that the material appears to students to lie within the realm of possibility in terms of achievement and appears in such a way that what may be difficulties will be truly their difficulties. In this way, the difficulty will challenge students to persist and grow beyond themselves. It will call them to move forward on their journey through life.


If it is accepted that students will inevitably encounter difficulty at some point in their studies, we need to help them in this experience. When difficulties appear in their lifeworlds as obstacles requiring a struggle or effort, we must be there to encourage and support them, to assist in accustoming them to this form of life. We need to establish the type of atmosphere where students will feel free to express the difficulties they are experiencing, where they will be able to ask questions without fear or reprimand or of looking stupid in front of both their teacher and their peers. If we show them that we are comfortable in the face of difficulty and that experiencing difficulty is an integral part of being in the world, an essential feature of being human, students will be less reluctant to admit to difficulty, to deny its value and significance. They will look both to the teacher and to other students to help them through what might otherwise be a painful and disturbing experience.


We have seen how difficulty is present in life as a mode of being. It is a subjective and meaningful experience found in our lifeworld and the lifeworlds of our students. It is our role as teachers, entrusted with the care of young children, to stand guard over their experiences of difficulty. This invokes not seeking to take the difficulty out of learning, and thus out of life, but rather asking ourselves whether the types of difficulties experienced in the classroom are authentic, whether they provide students with the possibility of being challenged in a meaningful way and truly growing beyond themselves. If we can answer Yes to this question, we then need to reflect on how we can help students in their encounter with difficulty and show them that this is an essential aspect of being human.




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