Good pain, bad pain

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In education, sometimes the pride you gain is worth the pain

Educators at all levels, from schools through to universities, need to understand and work with the difference between good pain and bad pain. This is because ‘pain’ can be a metaphor for the struggle to grow and to become a better person, a more independent and resilient learner. Students can experience pain in education when they undertake activities and challenges that help them to push against their own perceived limitations. Pain can also be experienced by teachers when wrestling with how best to teach a difficult class, or how to set appropriate limits in situations where building self-esteem in children with behavioural issues is important. Pain affects parents too. The pain of seeing children grow and become more autonomous, sometimes making choices that parents know will lead to negative outcomes, but will hopefully also lead to worthwhile growing experiences.

Consider the following scenarios based around the experiences students can have. 1: A student participates in a running race and comes seventh in a field of eight. 2: A student represents the school in a debating competition, prepares for several hours, but the team loses by one point. 3: A student performs badly on an assessment and has to redo it. 4: A student experiences muscle pain and cramps after a sporting competition against other schools.

In each of the scenarios the issue of pain is present. In the different scenarios, pain can be characterised variously as: the pain of poor relative achievement, the pain of unfulfilled expectations, the pain of facing an unwanted level of effort and lastly the physical pain of muscle microtears and fatigue. In each of the scenarios the student experiencing the pain may want to avoid it through such things as distracting the mind, seeking reassurance or resolving not to undertake the activity or task ever again (without making changes to the approach).

However, the question arises as to whether the experience of pain is always bad, and therefore to be avoided, or whether it is good and to be welcomed. Is the popular saying, ‘no pain, no gain’, true or even instructive? Or is it the case that pain is bad? Is there pain that is good? What level of pain is not appropriate? Whether it is good or bad, pain is consequential – it arises as an effect from a cause.

What is pain?

Is pain the distance between where I am now and where I would like to be? Is pain a sense of discomfort arising from some form of separation? Separation such as from whom the student thought they were in a misplaced sense of expectations. Or separation from what the student wanted to be or become. Or even pain being a sense of disjunct arising from reality that does not accord with desire.

However we define, articulate or think about pain, it is commonly associated with discomfort. In education, this association needs to be challenged. For example, a person training to climb a mountain may well experience muscle pain following their physical activity. This may well be a welcome pain, especially if it is considered ‘adaptive’ or a part of what must be done in order to realise the goal. Similarly, in education we can classify pain in two ways. It can either be adaptive and indicative of growth, or maladaptive and indicative of a requirement of change and/or intervention.

Pain in education

Whilst physical pain may be disconcerting due to the discomfort, a person can take medication to dull the pain. However, when confronted with the more subtle intellectual pain of being confronted with certain realisations, understanding or ideas then the pain cannot easily be avoided. Indeed, it is common for people faced with psychological pain to begin from a point of denial. In education, this is often evidenced when a person repeats information but appears not to process it. The thinking is attempting to accommodate the new information, idea, concept or understanding. In this regard, holding the moment and allowing for adaptation is crucial. Stillness can assist in helping a person feeling vulnerable to adjust, breathe and accommodate new learning.

The pain of being confounded, at a loss or confused are important and, if confronted with strength and confidence, lead to a person to seek clarification or support. In this way, discomfort can engender growth and learning. However, educators must build self-confidence first.

Too much pain can be overwhelming. Being overwhelmed is not conducive to learning. An essential aspect of education is learning to distinguish between good and bad pain and thus learn to protect oneself when necessary.

Resilience is created when students learn to stay still with discomfort generated when exploring new ideas, difficult concepts and alternative ways of viewing what they ‘know’. However, real strength does not only manage this pain through stillness. Real strength knows when to seek support, change a course of action or disclose weakness.