July 22, 2021

The Importance of Struggle in the Workplace with Patrice Bain, Author of “Powerful Teaching”

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #49

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Patrice Bain, a Fulbright scholar, adjunct professor at numerous universities, national educational advisor, with over 25 years of experience teaching. She’s also the author of Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning and has written several other books on effective teaching and the process of learning.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Patrice sat down with Sam and discussed virtual learning, utilizing technology, teaching people how to learn, and the importance of struggle.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Patrice shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “You not only want struggle, you need struggle. That’s where the learning sticks.”
  • “You can’t learn without failing. Making errors is so good for learning because it helps define where you need to work, it points out illusions and gaps in our learning, we need to welcome it.”
  • “Learning that is easy is like writing in the sand; here today, gone tomorrow.”


Sam: As you know, there are just so many myths about how things work and it’s so tough to change.

Patrice: Yes, it is. Thank you for trying to change that! I was one of two teachers who, you probably saw this, who worked in Washington, D.C. with the national commission on education research, trying to dispel that very thing of neuromyths versus neuro truths, teaching based on the research versus on these myths that are so pervasive and keep going!

Sam: I’ve read the book, Powerful Teaching. Would you be kind enough to maybe provide some quick flyover on why you’ve pursued this work?

Patrice: Yes, I would. And then also I have a new book out too, that I’d kinda like to plug. 

Sam: Let’s do it!

Patrice: It is A Parent’s Guide to Powerful Teaching because there are so many things that parents can be doing to help their kids.

Parents are so frustrated right now and it doesn’t have to happen. The very same principles that we use in learning can easily be transferred to home. So I wrote a short little guide, my plan. It had to be less than a hundred pages and less than $10 because I wanted it so accessible. 

Sam: Yeah, I’d love to talk about that. I have a four-year-old daughter at home and I’ll tell you, I’ve been putting everything I can to work, especially over being at home during COVID. I guess what are some of the tips for a parent? Especially right now, every parent has sort of been a teacher over the last year a bit.

Patrice: Doing the teaching without the gift of having the certification behind it, right? There are three steps to learning: Encoding, Storage, and Retrieval. Encoding is getting the information in, storage is there, retrieval is being able to pull that information out. And just explaining how we learn helps parents, because as teachers, we encode all the time. We know our curriculum and we know how to bring that information forth, but parents have been encoding since birth, getting the information, the values, the skills. Students already have so much before they ever get to school, and that’s all been provided by parents.

And when you teach your child the ABCs, you’re doing space repetition and getting them to retrieve the information. It is so similar that I think once parents understand that ‘I’ve been doing this and it’s what teachers do, and I can do this, it’s simple, simple tips, like how to retrieve at home, instead of saying, how was your day? We know what kind of answers those get. Just being able to switch our questions around, like where did you go in history? Boom. You’ve got somebody retrieving. Just simple ways to rephrase how we ask our kids about their day is something wonderful. 

And oh God, here I go, Sam, I just, wow. I could talk for hours on this!

Sam: No! I would love that, keep rolling!

Patrice: There’s just so many tips, you know? When I’m giving presentations, I will ask people, how many pennies have you seen in your lifetime? Hundreds? Thousands? And then I put up pictures of four pennies, and I say, which one is the real penny? And often people really struggle.

Which one is real, which way does Abraham Lincoln face? Where is the date? What words are on the penny? Even though you may have seen pennies thousands of times, just because we see it doesn’t mean we know it. And so as parents, if we see our children looking over their notes, rereading their book, And that’s the way they are studying, and the parents their child studying really hard, but not doing well, that’s why it’s like that penny example. It’s like what you do with 1Huddle. Your employees may have seen things thousands of times, but it doesn’t mean they know it.

Sam: As a parent, it’s been interesting because now my daughter is into Legos. She’s always building something. And there’s this interesting urge, even as somebody who has read your stuff and everything around what I should be doing to set my daughter up for success, but I found myself sitting at the dinner table wanting to involve myself in it. 

She’s going off the directions. She’s building something different. And I found I have to consciously stop myself and change how I’m engaging. But I realized this challenge to be okay with failure and be okay with struggling.

Patrice: Oh yes, yes! The sign front and center in my classroom was always ‘it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s the way we learn and you can’t learn without failing’. And that’s another big thing I talk to parents about, is making errors is so good for learning because it helps define where we need to work and points out illusions and gaps in our learning. And we need to welcome these because our errors are what gives us direction. It’s not a bad thing. 

Sam: I want your input on this because when you read your stuff and you dig into it, it just makes sense. Talk to a learning and development person and say, learning through struggle is biologically required. And you’ll say something like that and we’ll hear things back like, but don’t they have to learn it first before you can challenge them, before the low stakes quiz, before the game? We get that and it’s tough to respond to. How do you handle questions like that? 

Patrice: Like what I just said, how else do we know what direction to go unless we have pointed out where we need to work? And a great quote from Make It Stick, they say, ‘learning that is easy is like writing in sand; here today and gone tomorrow.’ So, if you have developers who are just kind of spoon-feeding, whoever’s on the receiving end isn’t learning it. Or if they do, it’s like, poof, then it’s gone.

So we want what’s called the “desirable difficulty”, or as Blake Harvard says, ‘desiring difficulty.’ As someone who is building out things for employees to learn, you not only want that little bit of struggle, you need that little bit of struggle because that’s where the learning is going to stick.

And one of my soapboxes is making that struggle okay. We desire that struggle. We aim for that because we know when that occurs and the person gets it, that that learning has been strengthened. Those connections into long-term memory are stronger now.

Sam: Yeah. As a teacher, Patrice, how do you think about lifelong learning? It’s a topic that’s coming up a lot today where, as work changes and jobs change, the things you used to know, certain skills may expire and you’ll have to learn new things, which means we’re working longer into our life. What do you think about that as a teacher with your experience?

Patrice: I always started my first day with saying, ‘I’m your teacher and I’m going to teach you how to learn. Secondly, is the curriculum. But my priority is going to teach you how to learn because this is a skill you will take with you forever.’ So even if the learning changes and what we learn changes, the process of getting the information into our heads isn’t going to change.

So when you know the process, you can adapt. It’s like a student who knows how to learn. Okay, they’re doing history and then they’re doing science and then they’re doing math. Or you do this job and then it changes to this job. We’re flexible. We can do that. 

Another thing, Dan Willingham, I don’t know if you’ve read any of his books, Why Students Don’t Like School? but he has version two just coming out like this week or last week or something. He has a great quote that says ‘children are more alike than different in terms of the way they think and learn.’ We’re all like that. It doesn’t matter if you are a top CEO or working on an assembly line or whatever. We all think more alike than different in terms of how we think and learn. And the people whose job descriptions are changing and people who are putting the information out there for their employees, that’s really crucial for them to know.

Sam, you need to just let me go to these people, when they give you that feedback, you say here’s Patrice’s number.

Sam: Be careful what you say, I’ll put your number up in the office. We’ll conference you in!

But it’s serious. We’ll hear, and it’s always the same the way everybody says it, it’s so interesting, it’s always, where does the learning happen? It’s almost like we’ve been wired to think from the way we come through school potentially that you read the material, then you get lectured, then you do the test. And now you’ve learned.

And again, work like yours is key to trying to educate and change perspective. But it’s tough. 

Patrice: Yeah, I’ve been on a mountain top since 2006 shouting that very thing, Sam. 

Sam: I’m interested in how, now with being remote and specifically in schools, I’m interested in your perspective on tips or strategies on teaching through zoom, teaching virtually, has anything changed? Is there any exercise, activity, strategy that you feel is more important now than ever in order to try to communicate or instruct virtually versus in-person?

Patrice: To me? Oh, I can answer this in so many ways. I have frequently heard the term ‘learning loss’ and I don’t believe in learning loss. I think what has happened is we have been given a gift to truly understand how we learn right now. And COVID has made this an even more important topic. That simply giving students something to read and doing a worksheet does not increase learning, does not boost learning.

But going back to retrieval and space practice and interleaving and feedback driven metacognition. It doesn’t matter if you are in-person, if you are virtual, when you teach your students how to learn, when you teach your employees how to learn and you use the science of learning, you know to focus on what’s really important to define what is really important that they need to know, not all the extra fluff.

And I think this is our opportunity to really help define learning. And I think COVID has put neon letters all around computers, about focus on how we learn, because that’s what’s important. 

Sam: Yeah. Have you seen any, again, as a tech company, from our perspective, I’m always interested to hear your perspective on, are there any cool technologies that you’re seeing? I can’t help but think that it’s in this moment that technology can help us move quicker, be more effective. Are there any cool technologies or technologies you would like to see maybe emerge?

Patrice: Gosh, thinking right off the top of my head, I can’t think of any names right now, specific names, but I know that teachers have found several companies, sites, where they are focusing on the science of learning where, for example, instead of simply doing flashcards there’s algorithms set up so those that they miss will go back into the deck.

So they’re building spaced practice into many of the study tools that the students are using. And I think that’s fabulous. 

Sam: Yeah, totally. 

Patrice: In fact, you’re doing that. You’re doing that, aren’t you?

Sam: Yeah, with our product, as you play, we’re scoring each. If you look at it like a flashcard, you can say we’re scoring each flashcard and looking at accuracy and speed of recall. So if you get a question right, but it takes you a few seconds longer than another question, that card will emerge a little bit more frequently in the future. 

Patrice: How amazing is that? It’s like, bravo! 

Sam: Yeah, and the other thing is, I took this from work like yours, where varying not just the question, but the answer sets. So again, continuing to find ways to increase struggle. The thing that personally has really helped me, but again, it’s another really tough thing to sell to somebody who doesn’t think about it this way, is interleaving. 

You mentioned interleaving, really mixing up content across topics and I think that’s a big one in the workforce. It makes sense in school, you study history, maybe out of order, but in work, you go through onboarding. Two weeks of onboarding. That doesn’t mean you don’t go through that stuff ever again. So I always felt like there’s an opportunity to continue to interleave foundational content, new content, emerging skills. But there’s this linear perspective on how you’re supposed to go through learning.

Again, in Make It Stick, because you’re familiar with that, they have such a wonderful example of the baseball coach, and using that example instead of having your pitcher do 10 fastballs, 10 low balls, 10 curveballs, whatever, and the batter always knowing what’s coming, simply to switch it up. So by the time the ball leaves that pitcher’s hand the batter has to take everything into account that they know how to hit that ball. And if you give that example to those people who ask you about interleaving for work, don’t you want them to have everything that they know, so they know the right pitch we make? 

Sam: Totally. Well, Patrice, I’m super excited. I’m going to absolutely pick up a Parent’s Guide to Powerful Teaching. 

Patrice: Thank you. 

Sam: Excited to get into it. There’s nothing wrong with fun. It gets a bad rap, doesn’t it?

Patrice: Yeah. Learning. If you’re going to learn, why not make it enjoyable? 

Sam: I have one final question, you just kind of brought me into it. What is your hope for the future of education? 

Patrice: That people learn how to learn. It’s a life skill, whether you are 75 years old and can’t remember where you parked the car or can’t find your car keys, there’s reasons why, and there are reasons how to totally solve that. It’s not just children in school. How to learn affects every single one of us from a young age to old age. 

Sam: Totally. Patrice, thanks for joining us today. This has been great.

Topics Discussed: Effective Teaching, Learning, Teaching, Technology, Education

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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