Rewarding Work Ethic over Intelligence
This article was originally written as a posting to one of my students at the mid-west university where I teach. The teacher made a r comment that "Students are not succeeding because they are lazy" and she went on to complain quite bitterly about how most of her students were failing and how they'd earned it.
I wondered if she had ANY idea how much her negativity was affecting her students. Maybe she thought she could hide it in her classroom, but if I could capture that vibration from two thousand miles away – surely her students knew that she had low expectations of them.
This article was the result. I firmly believe that she was approaching the situation from the wrong viewpoint. Hers was one of helplessness ("children come into my class lazy and they don't do their work") instead of one of empowerment ("I can help children learn a great work ethic and they'll end up being successful.").
The concept of rewarding work ethic instead of intelligence struck me as one way that she could instantly create a different atmosphere in her classroom. So with no further introduction – here is the article:
***** ***** *****
I believe that work ethic is learned through verbal reinforcement and modeling. A teacher can influence work ethic by discussing it and modeling it and rewarding it.
One of the very best ways that I know to encourage a strong work ethic is to stop saying the word "smart" in class (or in dealing with one's own children) and instead replace it with "hard worker."
Good: You're a hard worker and must feel very good about this paper.
Bad: You're smart and must feel very good about this paper.
It's VERY common for teachers and parents alike to say, "smart" a whole bunch (You can substitute any synonym for smart such as intelligence - it's all the same in result).
Unfortunately, this practice of saying, "smart" actually breaks down work ethic.
Why? Because intelligent children then think they can rest on their intellectual laurels and quit as soon as the going gets tough ("I must not be smart enough to do this particular thing") and kids who struggle academically know they are NOT smart and therefore quit ("I never was smart enough…so why try now?").
I think that having a worldview that "students' poor work is due to laziness" or "my children are lazy and therefore they do not produce" reinforces the laziness and in fact, creates it. This worldview strikes me as contemptuous of the student or the child - not that it is intentional, but there is a very subtle undertone of a sneer found in the concept that "students' poor work is due to laziness." It assumes a character flaw on the part of the student.
Negativity breeds a negative reaction.
Believing in a character flaw breeds more character flaws.
A paradigm shift from that worldview to one in which the teacher or parent respects children and believes that ALL children are on a path to learning and success is a better POV and one that breeds more success. I believe that many students are fearful of success. It seems strange to those of us who surround ourselves with accomplishment, but many previous teachers have damaged children or the children's life situations have created damage and fear within their hearts - they've been put down (whether it is real or imagined, it does not make a difference) and therefore they are afraid to put out their best effort.
The subconscious mind does NOT want to fail. Therefore - it'll set a child up to do less than his or her best and that way the child can say, "See? I didn't fail - I secretly know that I didn't do my best so my best can't make me be a failure."
It's a very strange cycle, but this is how it works for some children. Instead, we who are in the position of influencing children need to create an environment in which we reward hard work and effort and applaud REAL steps towards improvement and progress. This "jerks" the child out of the "stress-fear-poor work effort" cycle and replaces it with an environment in which they feel safe to succeed. "Oh, wow! I can't wait to see the look on my teacher's face when I turn in something amazing!"
Then, suddenly, the child is no longer "lazy."
Lecturing a child about being lazy does not cure laziness. Laziness is cured through rewarding actual work effort and creating a warm environment of success.
I am not a believer in rewarding crappy effort and shabby work with a, "Great effort!" comment. Kids can small a rat a mile away. But we've GOT to know the level of each student and if a kid is struggling, we discover something that they CAN succeed at and lavish on the "you're such a hard worker!" praise when we've "caught" them trying and watch them begin to shift.
Once practiced to mastery levels (and by that I mean – the teacher or the parent does not ever mention "smarts" or "intelligence"), learning to reward work effort over intelligence completely changes a student around in 2 - 6 weeks.
It's all in how we respect our students' natural eagerness to want to please us and turn in a fine product (and believe that truly and deeply and support that) and in the way we word things that makes the difference between kids who drag their feet and kids who cannot wait to turn in some really great work.