Saturday, April 26, 2014

Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone...
Watching Wheel of Fortune the other night with my parents and son, it happened to be an episode with University students.  "Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone" was one of the puzzles and none, I repeat, none of the contestants knew the phrase, let alone what it meant!  WOW!  Talk about Generation Gap.  This of course got me thinking about what that phrase meant as I attempted to explain to my 2nd grader what a grindstone was and what the phrase meant--and why on earth you would ever want to keep your nose on it!

We talk a lot about the importance of hard work, grit, stamina, perseverance, stick-to-it-ness--call it what you wish--in our students.  There is much discussion about how to teach this.  This was actually a feature not too long ago on NPR:
Here's the thing, I see my son NOT being willing to work on a challenge for extended periods of time...unless it is to level up in Plants vs Zombies or survive another night in Minecraft Survival Mode.  Perhaps I have to deal with my own generation gap as I try to convince him that reading and learning his times tables require just as much attention as defeating Dr. ZomBoss.  What has happened that the younger generations seem uninterested in academic and life successes?

Have we created an illusion of "easy success" with such truths as "participation" awards in sports, helicopter parents, and Google's ability to provide thousands of possible answers to any question within seconds?  I understand the desire to encourage kids in sports--I am a less-than-coordinated athlete who was ALWAYS picked last in PE.  I would have loved a participation award to acknowledge the fact that I kept showing up (well, I had to) for humiliation on the pitch.  As for helicopter parents, I'm a parent and my child is an only child.  I "get" wanting to help fix problems--at least right now.  He is only 7 1/2, after all.  And as for Google, well, I am a HUGE supporter of Google and all that they are doing for education so don't get me wrong, I love that I can pose a question and have a zillion possible hits in seconds all from the comfort of my own home.  No card catalogs or microfiche for me to pour over.  What a huge time saver.

So I return to the question that seems to be growing in education and society: How do we "teach" kids this all-important trait of stick-to-it-ness?  We adults know that at the heart of any success is the ability to keep with something until you have a product that you are proud of.  According to the Official Formula 409 website, the product got it's name because the previous 408 attempts didn't work.  Talk about tenacity!  How about the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan? How many hours did Mozart spend practicing?  Or how many auditions did it take for your favorite Hollywood star to become a star?  What about our top-paid athletes?  I'm a baseball fan and I know that it is such a small fraction of a percent that actually makes it out of the minors and into the MLB (30 teams with a roster of 25 players by mid-season--you do the math!)

I like the trend that is growing of iterative learning.  Allowing students to critique their work, receive feedback, and continue to re-submit until they are pleased with their final product and it is one that truly demonstrates mastery of the content.  This is definitely not how I (or probably most of you) learned.  I had to memorize and produce.  It was always a one-shot deal.  So I got really good at knowing what I had to produce--until the semester came and the teachers changed, and then I had to learn all over again how to please the new round of teachers.  (There is some value in that approach, but that is for another discussion.)  My perseverance, however, became motivated by achieving the grade, not learning the content.  I want my son, his classmates, and all of the students that walk through the doors of our high school to be motivated by the desire to learn and accomplish something, not simply check a task off a list.

So, teaching them about hard work, stamina, grit, perseverance, stick-to-it-ness is somewhat of an "X" factor, in my opinion.  Because how kids can learn has changed over time, and because the skill set they need is much more complex than it used to be, we as educators need to find new ways to reach them.  We need to provide our students with just enough incentive so that they are willing to keep trying until they are satisfied with their product.  This is imperative for the success of society.  If today's students are not willing to keep with a problem until it is solved, then what chance do those of us who will be in the rest homes have of a decent retirement?  And more importantly, how will our nation--or the world for that matter--continue to progress?

In the NPR article that I have linked, Alfie Kohn argues that grit is not dead and that kids today have just as much, if not more grit than earlier generations.  This seems to be at odds with many of the "Chicken Little" prophesies that are floating around today about needing to teach more grit.  I am not sure, to be honest, which side I am on in this discussion.  I look at my son and say "the sky is falling", then I go to work and see the amazing things our students are accomplishing and say "the world will be fine".

So then, what am I trying to say?  I think my point is this: It is important for students to understand the value of working at something until they "get it" (notice I didn't say "get it right").  It is equally important for educators to realize that we have to do more than show up as was the case once upon a time.  Jamie Casap (@jcasap) is fond of saying that teachers no longer need to be the Google in the room.  How true this is!  Educators can no longer be the "sage on the stage" and expect students to listen attentively, take notes, and regurgitate the proscribed information on the test.  If we want to engender hard work in the next generation, we need to give them a reason to work.  However, it isn't just about what happens Monday-Friday from 8 am - 3 pm.  This is truly a societal effort (remember, "it takes a village"!).  Parents, bosses, coaches, the media, all need to demonstrate the values of hard work.  If kids can't see the value in something, they move on.  That is definitely a result of this digital age.

And so I return in my musings to the beginning.  "Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone" may hold no meaning to the current generations--who have been raised in a primarily urban society--because it is cultural as much as generational in reference.  However, when it comes to achieving something they really want, they have the ability to demonstrate grit, and thus keep their nose to the grindstone even if they don't know that is what they are doing.  If you are more in the "Chicken Little" camp, perhaps these young people will help to change your mind: Google Science Fair

As long as the next generations continue to see value in their work, continue to find motivation in success, then I believe that the notion of hard work will not fade.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts!