"How Not Trying So Hard Makes You a Better Teacher: The Backwards Law in Action" or "Understanding the Backwards Law & Applying It in the Classroom"

“True growth in teaching comes not from striving harder, but from embracing the ease of letting go and fostering natural curiosity.”


The Backwards Law?


The Backwards Law, a concept introduced by philosopher Alan Watts, suggests that the more we chase after something, the more we push it away, often achieving the opposite of what we desire. This paradoxical idea can be seen in various aspects of life and work. For instance, the harder we strive for happiness, the more elusive it becomes. This is because intense focus on a desired outcome can lead to increased anxiety and dissatisfaction, making the goal harder to achieve.


Consider happiness. When people constantly strive to be happy, they often scrutinize their lives for signs of unhappiness, becoming more aware of what they lack. For example, someone who compares their life to others on social media may feel more inadequate and less satisfied, despite their efforts to be happy.


Similarly, overworking in the pursuit of productivity can lead to burnout, reducing overall effectiveness and job satisfaction. An educator who spends excessive hours preparing lessons and grading papers without taking breaks may become exhausted and less effective in the classroom.


Applying the Backwards Law in the Classroom


In education, the Backwards Law suggests that by trying too hard to enforce learning, control outcomes, and pressure students, we can inadvertently create a stressful environment that impedes natural curiosity, engagement, and genuine understanding. By doing less in certain areas and adopting a more relaxed, supportive approach, students can thrive more naturally and effectively. Understanding the Backwards Law can help educators create a more enjoyable and (more importantly) a more effective learning environment. 

Here are some specific strategies and actionable steps:


1. Encourage Curiosity-Driven Projects: Allowing students to explore topics they are naturally curious about can lead to deeper engagement and enjoyment of learning. This approach fosters intrinsic motivation, making learning more meaningful and effective.

Backwards Connection: Instead of rigidly controlling what and how students learn, allowing them to follow their interests reduces resistance and increases genuine engagement. Doing less to control their choices leads to deeper learning.

  • Do Less: Assigning projects strictly based on the curriculum with rigid guidelines.
  • Do More: Allowing students to choose topics that interest them and giving them flexibility in how they complete their projects.


2. Create a Low-Stress Environment: Reducing pressure helps prevent anxiety, which can hinder learning. By creating a low-stress environment, students can engage more fully and learn more effectively.

Backwards Connection: High-pressure environments can cause anxiety and hinder performance. Reducing stress and pressure, and focusing less on strict deadlines, allows students to learn more effectively.

  • Do Less: Creating high-pressure situations with strict deadlines and high-stakes testing.
  • Do More: Encouraging a culture where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and providing ample support and understanding.


3. Focus on Learning Journeys: Emphasizing the learning process rather than the end results helps students find joy in learning and achieve deeper understanding. This approach promotes long-term retention and a positive attitude towards education.

Backwards Connection: By emphasizing the process of learning rather than just the end results, students enjoy the learning experience more. Less focus on grades and outcomes promotes a deeper understanding of the material.

  • Do Less: Solely focusing on test scores and final grades as measures of success.
  • Do More: Highlighting and celebrating the steps students take to understand material, including effort and incremental progress.


4. Celebrate Effort Over Talent: Recognizing effort and persistence helps students develop a growth mindset, reducing fear of failure and increasing resilience. This fosters a more positive and productive learning environment.

Backwards Connection: Praising effort rather than inherent ability encourages a growth mindset. Doing less to idolize talent and more to recognize hard work helps students become more resilient and persistent.

  • Do Less: Praising only natural talent and high achievers.
  • Do More: Acknowledging and rewarding effort, persistence, and improvement regardless of the initial ability level.


5. Implement Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness helps students focus on the present moment, reducing stress and enhancing their ability to learn. This practice improves concentration and overall well-being.

Backwards Connection: Constantly pushing students to think about future achievements can create stress. By encouraging mindfulness and present-focused practices, students can reduce anxiety and enhance concentration.

  • Do Less: Pushing students to constantly think about future tests or grades.
  • Do More: Incorporating mindfulness exercises like deep breathing, meditation, or mindful breaks into the daily routine.


6. Balance Work and Play: Allowing time for relaxation and play helps prevent burnout and improves focus and productivity during study times. A balanced approach supports better academic performance and personal development.

Backwards Connection: Overloading students with work can lead to burnout. By doing less to overwhelm them and allowing more time for relaxation, students can maintain better focus and productivity.

  • Do Less: Overloading students with excessive homework and continuous academic activities.
  • Do More: Scheduling regular breaks, incorporating physical activities, and encouraging extracurricular interests.


7. Offer Autonomy in Learning: Giving students control over their learning paths can lead to increased motivation and a more meaningful learning experience. Autonomy fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility in students.

Backwards Connection: Strictly controlling how students learn can stifle creativity and motivation. Offering more autonomy allows students to take ownership of their learning, increasing their engagement and satisfaction.

  • Do Less: Imposing strict, one-size-fits-all assignments and assessments.
  • Do More: Providing choices in how students demonstrate their understanding and encouraging them to pursue individual interests within the curriculum.


8. Foster Intrinsic Motivation: When students are motivated by internal satisfaction rather than external rewards, they engage more deeply and enjoy learning more. This leads to a more fulfilling and effective educational experience.

Backwards Connection: Relying heavily on external rewards can diminish intrinsic motivation. By doing less to incentivize with grades and prizes, and more to encourage personal meaning and enjoyment in learning, students become more deeply engaged.

  • Do Less: Relying heavily on rewards such as grades, prizes, or praise to motivate students.
  • Do More: Encouraging students to find personal meaning and enjoyment in their work, and to set their own learning goals.



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