Working hard is not enough.

This post, like part of yesterday’s, brings up an educational dilemma:

  • On the one hand, we want students to work hard. That means that we need to provide incentives as rewards for working hard. Grades are pretty much the only currency we have in high school, so students expect to get good grades if they put in a lot of effort. “I worked really hard, so I deserve a B” is a common refrain.
  • On the other hand, we want students to succeed at learning math. That means that we shouldn’t reward someone who tries but doesn’t succeed. If I give a B to students who have earned a D, merely because they’ve been trying, it sends the wrong message to those students, to their parents, and to their future teachers.

There’s the dilemma. How do we get students to work hard, if they don’t connect it with success? Many — perhaps most — high-school students see the process like this:

work-hard-get-good-grade

What they’re missing, of course, is the step in the middle of the link. In reality the process goes like this:

work-hard-learn

Teenagers are notoriously bad at connecting distant consequences to current actions, so it’s no surprise that so many don’t see the step in the middle. As educators we can’t promise that hard work will necessarily lead to high grades, but we can help our students see how the connection works. Of course they may point to counterexamples: either classmates who do well without working hard or those who work hard and still get low grades. Those counterexamples do make our argument more difficult. Let’s create a sort of Punnett square of four types of students:

1
works hard,
is successful

2
works hard,
is unsuccessful

3
works very little,
is successful

4
works very little,
is unsuccessful

It’s easy to agree about students 1 and 4. Every teacher admires and is pleased with student 1; every teacher is frustrated and unhappy about student 4. But students 2 and 3 are the difficult cases. We admire and praise student 2, but we (and the student) are still frustrated. Working hard is supposed to lead to success, so how do we reward it when it doesn’t? But we can’t in good conscience give such a student a good grade.

Student 3 may be annoying but is less of an issue. We definitely do not want to praise such students, either publicly or privately. But we have to admit that they are successful despite the fact that they don’t work hard. Oh well, that’s life. We try to provide extra challenges for them, but it’s hard to push difficult challenges on those who don’t want them.

Finally, what about the argument that success is what counts in “real life”? Frankly, I’m unimpressed with the view that school needs to be like work. I hear some people say that we shouldn’t allow retakes, as “there are no second chances in real life.” Putting aside the fact that that claim simply isn’t true, as many a politician and business executive can tell you, we still don’t have to accept the implication for school situations. There are plenty of reasons to refuse to yield to the desire to reward hard work that doesn’t happen to lead to success, but the “real life” claim isn’t one of them.



Categories: Teaching & Learning