Can you succeed in school without really trying?

January 16, 2008

The Premise. Many people subscribe to the idea that being successful in school, i.e., being ‘smart’, is a gift. You might be lucky and be born with ‘smarts’, but whether you were born this way or not, there’s no point in trying to do anything about it. Hard work. Applying yourself. These things are not going to help you succeed in school. In fact, hard work could hurt. Dozens of teachers have warned me about the horrible effects of “drill and kill”. Scores of teachers and parents have told me that a good school is one that nurtures self-esteem, discovery, and creativity, and avoids any activity that looks like work or effort or carries the least possibility of failure. In their minds, the ideal school is one where children learn without realizing that they are learning.

My Response. There may be something to the notion of being “born smart”. No two people are exactly the same, so it stands to reason that no two brains will perform exactly the same. However, the possible value of a good brain does not rule out the value of hard work. Effortless learning may be pleasurable, but learning that is entirely effortless is not ideal.

It is easy to find examples of learning that is based on work. Learning to walk. Learning to talk. To read. And count. All of these basic lessons require effort, by which I mean, the lessons involve repetition driven by a desire to succeed. Babies fall down when they try to walk the first time. Children practice singing the alphabet and sounding out words. If these activities aren’t forms of effort, what are they?

Mature learners rely on effort too. Thomas Edison did not discover a working light bulb under his pillow one morning. Watson and Crick endured strong criticism from their colleagues before they hit upon the structure of DNA. Einstein labored unsuccessfully for years to find a unified field theory.

There are, in fact, countless examples, large and small, linking learning with effort, and yet this link doesn’t seem to exist in the American mindset. I have met many financially successful, college-educated parents who reject any connection between learning and work as inappropriate for their children. Why?

Part of the problem may be that we do not reward ourselves for hard academic work. When we learn something easily in school, we feel wonderful. When we hit a difficult subject, however, even though we may ultimately overcome our difficulties, we frequently harbor some resentment about the experience and we turn our interests and appreciation towards other subjects. Worse still, we run down anyone who is still making an effort. “She’s such a grind.” “He isn’t that smart. He just gets good grades because he works so hard.” By failing to appreciate our hard-won successes, whether they be partial or complete, we encourage the growth of some screwy notions about what works in our own lives and then generalize these ideas to our children’s school environment.

The Antidote. It is time to recognize that hard work is valuable and important. Not just for building houses and hospitals, but also for learning. Schools should promote hard work as a tool that is available to everyone and should teach students to identify, enjoy, and take pride in accomplishments that are based on effort. To help inspire this point of view, I have created a list of news bulletins that testify to the value of hard work in an intellectual setting:

1. Science, Sept 21, 2007, 317 (5845), p. 1657 [Random Samples] – Chess for Drudges? Psychologists at Oxford tested the chess playing skills of youngsters, and looked for correlations between skill, IQ, and practice time. “Although years of experience and IQ correlated with chess skills, the researchers found that the highest correlation was with the number of hours a day the children spent playing or studying the game.” [DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5845.1657d]

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