“This is easy”: The little phrase that causes big problems

  • “This is easy”: The little phrase that causes big problems

    By Tracy J. Zager, posted March 27, 2017 —

    The first time I visited Debbie Nichols’s first- and second-grade multi-age classroom, she had assigned a challenging problem that involved a paragraph of text and a large graphic. I watched as students furrowed their brows, read the directions, and studied the picture. Everyone looked eager to figure it out, and students got right to work. A minute or two later, something changed. In pockets around the room, table group by table group, individual students said, “Oh! This is easy!”

    Imagine for a moment that you are the student sitting next to the student who read the problem quickly and announced it was easy while you were still trying to get your bearings. What happened to your interest in the problem, your confidence, your focus? Well, the same thing happened with these kids. When Andrew announced it was easy and started writing, Emily stopped thinking about the problem. She looked nervously at Andrew, looked back at her own paper, and lowered her pencil.

    I see the same body language in classrooms all over the country, in all grades. I can almost see thought bubbles over the heads of a roomful of students. A few of the bubbles say, “This is easy!” while others think, “Everybody else understands, and I don’t. I hate math.” Students cede mathematics to their classmates who get it first and get it right without breaking a sweat. They shut down.

    Debbie and I talked after class and decided to take on “This is easy” because it was interfering with the lively, safe, inclusive climate she was trying to establish at the beginning of the year. We started by digging into the meaning of the word easy. Math problems are neither easy nor hard by any objective measure—the level of difficulty is always relative and always personal—so we wondered exactly what students were trying to say when they told one another, “This is easy.”

    Deb and I watched, listened, and talked with students over the next several sessions until the patterns became clear. We observed two dominant usages. Sometimes students said, “This is easy” to mean, “I already know how to do this.” In other words, they’d had previous opportunities to make sense of the mathematics involved. More accurate language might be any of the following:

    • “This is familiar to me.”
    • “I used to struggle with this kind of math, but now I can do it.”
    • “I’ve practiced this before.”
    • “I know something that I can use here.”
    • “I feel confident about this kind of math.”
    • “I have experience with similar problems.”

    What I saw that first day in Deb’s room was different, though, because that problem involved mathematics that was unfamiliar to everyone. This second way of using the phrase occurs when students face something novel or challenging; they use “this is easy” as shorthand for “I just made some sense out of this” or something similar to the following:

    • “This seemed hard at first, but I think I can do it!”
    • “Oh! Now I understand the question!”
    • “I see a way to start.”
    • “I have an idea to try.”
    • “I think I’ve figured out what this picture means.”
    • “I see what’s going on here!”

    Deb’s students brainstormed these more precise phrases, which Deb posted as an anchor chart. We talked about how feeling confident and figuring something out are good, satisfying feelings and a big part of why math and puzzling are so rewarding. At the same time, we talked about the language we use and how we can unintentionally affect our friends and classmates. We wanted students to encourage one another, and we added some supportive messages, such as “I see a path, and you will too!” and “I believe in you.” Deb’s students—especially those who were not yet confident in math—responded positively to these conversations, and we watched them engage more in math class.

    We also saw students’ empathy grow. For example, when students were adding on the hundred chart, Jules announced, “This is so easy.” A few minutes later, Deb asked students to subtract. Clint said, “This is easy, peasy, lemon squeezy,” and Jules looked crushed. When students met on the rug at the end of class, Jules raised her hand and said, “I felt a little sad when Clint said, ‘This is easy, peasy, lemon squeezy,’ because it wasn’t easy for me! The beginning was kind of easy, but when we got to the twenty-six part, it kind of got hard.”

    I pointed out that she’d said, “This is so easy,” just a couple of problems before. Her mouth opened and her eyes widened in recognition and surprise. When I asked her about it later, she said, “Now I know how it feels, and I’m not going to say it anymore!”

    Next time you hear students say, “This is easy,” in your class, take note. Are they saying it to mean “I’ve seen this before” or “I understand it now”? What’s the effect on their peers? On themselves? What difference would it make if they used different language? How might it change the tone and tenor of your classroom if you opened a conversation about “This is easy” with your students?

    If you decide to address “This is easy” in your classes, I hope you’ll share what you learned in the Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had discussion forum or on Twitter using #BecomingMath. Catch more from Tracy at http://www.tjzager.com or @tracyzager.


    Tracy Zager is the author of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms (Stenhouse 2017), which grew out of her work with her colleagues as a math coach and before that with preservice teachers and their in-service mentors. Zager is most in her element in classrooms, learning together with teachers and students over time. She currently splits her time between coaching and editing professional development books for teachers. Although she loves her work dearly, she still secretly pines for her fourth-grade classroom and hopes to return to full-time teaching someday. 


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    Mark Ludwig - 8/30/2019 8:59:06 AM


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    Sarah Caban - 7/13/2017 6:30:17 AM

    I have been thinking about this a lot. I am bummed that I missed last nights TCMChat on Twitter. As an adult learner, hearing this word or others like it (obvious, etc) make me cringe. It may prompt feelings of insecurity (worst case scenario) and/or an inclination to continue my work in isolation and keep my thinking to myself (best case scenario).  I have been wondering, why does this word show up in math situations? What are we really saying when we say "this is easy"?  I think we are refering to the study of math as an discipline of "answer getting".  I think we are saying, "it is easy for me to get the answer." As adults, we don't often use the phrase "this is easy", but we still convey the same message. Sometimes, there are more subtle ways that we communicate that the answer is more important than the ownership of learning. I have been wondering, how can we support the learner (like me) who is cringing and/or retreating from the math community?  How can I empower myself and learners like me? What can I say or do, in that moment, to push the conversation forward? What are the words and/or gestures that we use as adults that may shrink our math community instead of expand it?

    Joseph Schwartz - 3/29/2017 2:10:16 PM

    I'll only add that I hear variations on the phrase, "This is easy" from teachers when they give problems as much as I do from students when they solve them.   And this along with, "This problem is going to be hard/tricky/challenging."  Let's let the students be the judges.

    Tracy Zager - 3/31/2017 10:48:40 AM

    I agree completely, Joe! I hear it all the time. "This one won't take you long because it's easy." Or "Pretty easy, right?" And the converse too. I think these comments are so alienating to kids.

    April Pforts - 3/28/2017 11:50:49 AM

    Loved this!  Confession!  Seriously, I still feel like this as an adult, teacher, instructional coach, and State Supervisor of Mathematics.  Every time we have to do math in Professional Develoment, PLC, or any other meeting.  I always feel like the weakest link because I will still be thinking, making connections, decoding, etc and there are always others that are faster, start chatting, writing answers, etc.  I will try to understand what others are thinking but sometime we are so happy that we are first we do not always take the time to have mathematical discorse with others.  I too find myself stopping thinking, disengaging, thinking how to I "pretend" to get it so I do not look dumb.  Oh, the angst of it!  The struggle is real.  Others tell me we should always do math at math meetings.  I tend to shy away from this because why do I want someone to have this experience.  If I experience this, then I am thinking there are a few others that do too.  Plus, I do not hate math, I love math, it is my passion and my life's work.  I shudder to think what this is like for students.



    Tracy Zager - 3/31/2017 10:46:44 AM


    I think that emphathy is so powerful! My staff talked about this just last week. We did some math together and people shut down as other people finished fast. I realized I did not do enough to create and defend a safe space. I sort of thought we were past that, but no! Not yet. It takes a lot of time and continued reframing from the facilitator to change that climate. I think, with your understanding from both sides, you can work on establishing norms and expectations that would be so helpful to your colleagues.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences here. So brave!


    Michael Pershan - 3/27/2017 3:04:21 PM

    Tracy -- 

    I totally agree that "this is easy" can shut down a lot of thinking. We absolutely need to deal with it in our classrooms.

    I also agree that asking students to use more precise language is one possible way to eliminate "this is easy." 

    I have a different approach to dealing with this problem. It feels worth sharing, especially because it came up today in my 4th Grade class. We were working on reflections and symmetry, and one kid loudly announced "this is easy." 

    "Hey," I said. "Cut it out. It's not nice to say that a problem is easy."

    Would it have helped if he had used a more precise phrase? I'm not sure. Would it have been nicer if he had announced "This is familiar to me"? I don't think so, and I also don't think this is what you're saying. I take it that you're saying that, once my student realizes that "easy" is a fuzzy construct, he'll no longer think in terms of "easy." Instead, he'll think in terms of familiarity or insight

    Would it be less distracting for him to announce to the class that he'd just had an insight? Maybe we're imagining different things, but I think it might be. (Full context: I'm imagining my student using that same annoying voice that he used to announce that the problem was easy: I just had an insiiiight.)

    So, I'm not sure. 

    I think the fundamental problem is that the student wants to be proud of what he knows or has figured out. To have a quick insight feels great in math; it also feels great to realize that some problem is super familiar; it also feels great to find something easy when a lot of other people are finding it hard. I'm not sure I'm ready to say that any of these feelings is wrong -- one of the ways that people start realizing they have special talents is by noting their successes. 

    So, to me, the real problem is that it's just not nice to announce where you're at in a problem when other people are thinking about it. It ruins the fun. It gets in their heads. It makes them worry that there's something wrong if this problem is hard for them. So kids: just cut it out. It's not nice.

    Tracy Zager - 3/31/2017 10:43:07 AM


    I think we agree more than we disagree. Remember, these were 1st graders in the fall. It felt worth it to take a deep dive, to think about habits, to discuss how we talk in math at length. But that doesn't mean I respond to every "This is easy" with a long exploration of the word. In my classroom, I used to have my own broken-record response to "This is easy," which was, "It's only easy if you know how to do it." I tended to frame "This is easy" as unhelpful and uninteresting. Save your breath. It doesn't tell us anything we need to know. Over the first few months of school, kids stopped using it altogether because they got this discouraging reaction out of me.

    After years of visiting different classes and hearing it, though, I wanted to dig into why they say it, what it means. What's it shorthand for? That's why Deb and I dug deeper. I found it helpful to me to understand that there may (or may not) be a positive reason for them to say it. It feels good to figure things out. So let's keep the good feeling but not take out our neighbors at the same time.

    Sometimes, though, it is mean-spirited, or more likely, masking a larger insecurity. And that's where I talk with students individually and privately.