Good Situation Bad, Bad Situation Good

Students build their success upon a foundation comprised of environment, curriculum, effective classroom teachers and personal motivation. Family and culture are given ingredients, the others variables.

Effective teachers work with the variables. We help students master the curriculum by modeling enthusiasm for the subject, nurturing their natural curiosity and creating an environment that rewards good work habits and creative thinking.

Natural selection in the traditional academic ecosystem favors students’ ability to sit in a seat all day long and receive knowledge. Most teachers and students focus on test taking and grades. Performance research strongly suggests emphasis on grades and data-driven evaluation does not equip students for success in college or in the workplace. Most high schools send their kids to college able to take tests but without the tools for creative problem solving.

Work ethic and constructive failure are the tools necessary for lasting success. The apocryphal myth about the light bulb comes to mind. Edison is supposed to have conducted over a 1,000 experiments before finally succeeding. When asked about the failures he said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.”

The moral of the story is failures are teachers not the last word on a subject. Life rewards consistent and persistent individuals, qualities which can be taught and nurtured. Evidence for this exists in the stories we tell about successful people and in modern research of people like research psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Self-control.,” he writes, “Proved to be a better predictor of college grades than students IQ or SAT scores.” (LOSING CONTROL, Baumeister and Tice )

Work ethic is synonymous with self-control. It’s the practice of showing up every day prepared to work and sticking with a task until it’s done. There’s nothing natural about choosing an English composition over playing a video game or hanging out with friends or pushing beyond the first solution that comes to mind.

Here lies the nexus between personal responsibility and teaching. Teachers, who create an environment that rewards consistency and creativity over test scores and regurgitation, help their students develop work and thinking habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

How students are held accountable makes all the difference. For example, my daughter is a sophomore at King Philip High School. Her English teachers writing assignments intended to teach “the writing process.” They teach various brainstorming techniques, show students how to outline; they require students to write multiple drafts, they incorporate peer editing into their pedagogy and they allow students to rewrite their papers to improve the grade. On the surface that paradigm seems fair and roughly approximates the way writers work.

Peeling back the layers reveals serious pitfalls. Prewriting, outlining, and rough drafts are graded for style and grammar instead of effort and improvement. Failing the interim work guarantees an F for the whole project regardless of the quality of the finished product. Likewise, rewrites, though required in failed papers, cannot raise the grade to passing. The terms brainstorming and rough drafts loses their meaning when teachers grade the workproduct rather than the work-process.

Writers cannot produce genuinely creative work well when they have to worry about being evaluated for anything but effort and improvement during the pre-writing and rough draft phases. According to another apocryphal story—this one about the creators of the Looney Tunes cartoons—the writers met for weekly brainstorming sessions. They had only one rule. No one was allowed to say anything negative. This encouraged everyone to turn off both personal and group censors. Often non-sequiturs and outrageous statements led to productive ideas.

Rough drafts followed consensus. Critical editing led to the finished product, until finally Elmer Fudd stalked across the screen lisping, “Qwiet. I’m hunting wabbits” as Bugs Bunny snuck up from behind, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “What’s up Doc?”

To be sure there are objective impediments to a grading model that rewards effort and improvement as well as the finished product. But anything less undermines the lessons taught by the process paradigm.

The preferable rubric gives full marks for demonstrable effort during the pre-writing and rough draft phases. It also rewards improvement through the drafting phase. Finally second chances should be meaningful. Why would anyone put in a final effort if he or she could not ultimately achieve a satisfactory result?

Developing good work habits and durable problem solving skills are far more important than things like spelling, MLA formatting, and whether they know literature and grammar jargon. This area is where teachers can have the most meaningful impact.

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