Today our teachers met with parents to discuss their child’s progress during the first weeks of the school year. Some meetings were traditional parent-teacher interviews and some were student-led conferences, in which children were active participants in describing their roles in their own learning. As I alluded to last week, the essence of any fruitful parent-teacher discussion always focuses on one important quality of any effective learning enterprise – the decisive role of effort.
The 2012 edition of Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement presents an instructional framework that organizes highly effective teaching strategies into implementation stages. “Reinforcing Effort” is included among the most important strategies that the authors identify as necessary to create the environment for learning.
Matthews Hall has a long and well-established commitment to the importance of effort in the learning environment of every classroom. At the end of the school year, there is even a “Joy of Effort” award that recognizes exceptional commitment to the regular application of its principles in daily classwork and in the face of adversity and struggle. It is not a fluffy award. It is a statement of our collective belief that trying hard and not giving up are qualities that deserve praise and recognition.
When we meet to discuss our children’s academic lives, we can sometimes become overly focused on categories, classes and rankings – especially in comparison to other children. Naturally, our eyes are drawn to “marks” and “ratings” and, of course, these are important and have their place in the overall description of our child’s progress and achievement. However, we can never set aside the value of effort and some form of struggle in the attainment of these goals. After all, personal existence has been marked by struggle from time immemorial. If all struggle is removed or “plowed out of the way”, we (and our kids!) can be tempted to find or create another. I suggest that we help students put obstacles in their proper place and support the kind of effort necessary to overcome them.
To do this, educators must establish an environment in which students feel they can do the work that is expected of them. Cognitive psychologist Carol Dweck has conducted ground-breaking research on the importance of encouraging effort. Working with a group of middle school students, Dweck and her team researched the impact on learning and motivation when students were praised for working hard versus being praised for being smart.
The results were astounding. Students who were praised for being smart tended to take fewer risks, were easily frustrated with challenges, and even considered cheating. Those who were praised for working hard, however, persevered during challenges and were more likely to reflect on improvements they could make in the future. We see these phenomena every year.
It is in elementary school that students first hear these important and subtle messages. They can hear them from parents, teachers and from one another. As we begin each year with the end in mind, let’s aim for excellence, assess for mastery, and enrich with content. But let’s never forget that losing the “Joy of Effort” is far more consequential than a B-minus on a social studies test!
Head of School