For quite some time in the educational world, teachers and school leaders have witnessed a gradual diminution of the work ethic among students. This is not surprising to any parents who take a moment to step back and survey what is happening—with their own children and their children’s peers.
There is so much operating at the same time in American society that contributes to the vanishing of what was once a staple in American family life. Passivity within our hyper-consumerist culture; baby boomer parents who “friend” their children and indulge them; the ferocity of parental complaints directed at teachers for every downtick in their child’s performance; our touch screen digital age; the general fear of failure; an insanely exclusive focus on outcomes while being blinded to the value of the process…we can go on and on. Anyone can name five factors in a flash—they might be all different from mine—and yet they would be just as prominent in contributing to our culture of laxity and entitlement.
I know there are outstanding students everywhere—those who generate phenomenal resumes and get into the most highly selective colleges. But here again, look a little closer and there is a sinister side to what is driving these students…the extrinsic motivational aspects of their resume building. Yes, there are the honestly extraordinary kids who are passionate about their special interests and who take full advantage of their abilities; however, for the majority of the college-bound, the mania surrounding the college process has dampened the spirits surrounding what higher education should be about.
The key question for today is this: What role can we, the educators, play in the re-institution of the work ethic among our students, or at least a reasonable modicum of the work ethic? Can we at all be effective in this area? Are schools straight-jacketed by a society that continuously mitigates against hard work, making an honest effort, and perseverance? How can schools partner with parents in this effort to enhance effort?
Here are some starting points schools might consider:
- 1) Create assessment standards that incorporate such ideals as perseverance and academic effort; these traits can be easily observed by teachers.
- 2) Give students opportunities to fail; instill in students the notion that understanding and learning and resolve can be valuable outcomes of the failure experience.
- 3) Get rid of all the extrinsic motivational goodies: gold stars, candy, brownie points, etc., get rid of all this; the reward for the pursuit of academic skill-building must be found within the effort itself or must derive from the pride one should feel in the execution of the new skill.
- 4) Stop publically rewarding the academically proficient or the top performers; schools can celebrate their students in so many more meaningful ways than to trumpet a static elite list of the academically talented.
- 5) The classroom learning experience should frequently include the development of stamina; stamina in reading, stamina in sticking with a difficult problem to solve, stamina in exercising creativity.
- 6) Incorporate the topic of effort into the parent-teacher conference, and school leaders and teachers can keep this topic on the front burner.
- 7) Just like families should do at home, schools should expect students to perform daily service tasks—give them small roles and chores to do in the classroom or the cafeteria or at the end of PE or recess: collecting the trash, putting things away, retrieving the soccer balls—there are loads of small things students can do to build a sense of community and of mutual support… and the idea of doing a menial task soon is something they will take pride in.
The language of perspiration, of exertion, of perseverance, of stamina, of trying hard, of picking yourself up off the ground… all of this verbiage needs to find its way back into the school building.
Do let me know your ideas on this topic—please share the things you feel can work. Let’s keep this talk alive.