While cleaning my classroom, I got thinking about my goals for next year. What do I want as my underlying focus? I realized that what I wanted most was to teach each student the value of hard work. When I say that I don’t mean how to do mountains of homework, read hundreds of pages and churn out lots of worksheets. It is more that I want to teach them to set academic and personal goals for themselves, ones that they care about and then help them learn how to do the necessary brain work to achieve them. It is only through identifying a goal and committing to the hard work that is necessary that each of them will succeed. Most of my students know that it takes “hard work,” but they often have no idea how to go about it successfully.
That is not all their fault. Modern life makes many of the answers to their questions or attainment of their desires instantaneous. It is not simply because of Google, though it starts there. If they are confused or want some information, they can simply “google” it. There is no need to bike to the library, search in a card catalogue, find the book, look through the index and then search for the word on the page, in the hopes that this page will cover this topic. Now while I am clearly exaggerating for emphasis, it did used to be harder to gather information. When the answer was not immediately, each student needed to spend more time focused both on the question and on the answer. That recall and pondering was the foundation of critical thinking. It demanded active engagement. “Where can I go to find this information?”
Then there is access to their music, to their friends. through their phones, they can immediately be in contact with whomever they want with a quick text. There is no need to find a pay phone or even walk into another room. They can listen to whatever music they want whenever the mood strikes. Again, no need to wait for the song on the radio or to go to the record player or boom box to make it happen. And there is definitely no need to be tied to one space while they are listening. They can have what they want where they want it at any moment.
So how do we, as educators tackle this. There is no going back, and the ways that we taught them to be dedicated students in the past need to adapt to the current realities. The brain takes repetition and reflection to grow. It needs for the neural pathways to be accessed repeatedly to make a solid memory. So how do we train kids to do that work, to not expect to learn quickly but to tackle the more challenging work of learning?
What are the components of the hard work of learning? The first ingredient is time. To be a hard worker, you must be willing to put in time. It simply takes time to make anything happen. I want to be more deliberate next year in explaining how long each task should take. Perhaps in September, they could each set timers when they are doing an assignment and see how long it takes them. Together, we can then set the time and identify the time and place when the task can be done.
This leads to another aspect of hard work, which is focus. It is difficult to successfully accomplish a task without a focus on that goal. If one is distracted and not attentive to the steps involved, it is not possible for the brain to make the necessary connections. I want to think about lessons that will show the students what they can achieve when really focused, when they can practically feel their brains working. They should be short and interesting, challenges that they want to accomplish. Then there need to be lessons that have distractions built in them, ones where maintaining their focus on the goal will be difficult. I want to give an assignment where they track their attention spans while working at school and at home. How long could they stay on task without looking up, chatting with a friend, etc.? When do they need a break? The goal is to help them organize their study time, so that they can identify how long they can stay on task, how long they can do the work of being a student.
I would then add determination. Most successes are achieved by powering through the times of discouragement and frustration. A desire to reach the goal is not optional, but is at the heart of the effort. For weaker students, there is often no sense that success is even possible. They know that this task, like the one before it, is one where they will try and fail. By middle school, those students have had enough learning experiences where they were left behind to have lost heart. It is at the heart of our job to give them hope. We must provide enough differentiation that they are able to gain a foothold, no matter how small, so that they can begin to see the possibility of learning. I have said it before, but there is no a student out there who wants to be seen as the stupid one in the class. They would all like to be the “smartest” in the class. We have to provide all students, no matter what their strengths or challenges, with experiences that allow them to feel the joy of learning, because success is addicting. If they can have a few of those times, then they will be willing to take on the hard work of learning. They will strive to have more success, and we have them hooked. They begin to generate their own determination.
I know that a key ingredient in teaching students to be hard workers is to be one myself. If I am a lazy teacher, I can never teach my students to be dedicated to their learning. I must show a passion for my own learning and a commitment to theirs. Lessons must be well-planned; papers must be promptly graded. And I have to show them each day that I am glad to share their journey with them.
So I am thinking about hard work this summer. I would love to know your thoughts!