Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Work Ethic

A while back, I read a post on someone else's blog about their version of a play-based curriculum. I'm sorry I don't recall where, but the first reader comment is what has stuck with me. It was from someone who purported to be a teacher and was quite critical, asserting among other things that "this is what's wrong with this country." The commenter's point was that we fail kids when we imply that everything should be fun, that in fact most things worth doing or learning weren't fun, that success in life comes from learning about working hard, especially when required to do things we don't want to do.

I teach very young children, of course, which kind of inoculates me against these critiques, but it's an argument that those of us who publicly advocate for play-based education hear a lot. This always strikes me as a kind of window into a particular world view, and I'm tempted to trot out the great philosophical bookends of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, placing the naysayers in the "man is essentially evil" camp, while proponents of play-based education form the "man is essentially good" crowd. And I think that it does at some level drill down to these fundamental and opposed understandings of humanity, a debate that continues to be carried out today through our politics.

Usually, it's phrased as a question: Everything you say about the value and benefits of a play-based education sounds well and good, but how do the children ever learn about the value of hard work?

I see "hard work" every day in our classroom, even among the very young children I teach. Sometimes the work is so hard they break down in tears or flare up in anger, especially when applying themselves, through play, to learning to interact with the other people. I watch them struggle as they repeatedly address a piece of paper with scissors, brows furrowed in a display of concentration, or strive to slow themselves down to the pace of calm meditation in order to place a dot of liquid from a pipette on just the right spot. When a child sits down to assemble a puzzle, it's not all "joy," it's not all "fun," but it is all play, and if the puzzle is one of those "just right" puzzles, it is hard work.  

Indeed "play" and "hard work" are not opposites: in fact, they can be seen as synonyms. Anyone who has ever played hard also knows how to work hard. There may be aspects of our play that we dislike, that are not "fun," but we do them because they are steps in the process we are teaching ourselves, the challenge we are undertaking. And young children tend to play hard, throwing themselves wholly into it, immersing themselves into it as they see fit, to the degree they feel comfortable, up to the point of their interest, until their driving questions are answered.

And this is where Hobbesians tend to interject: Ah, but what about the hard work of doing things they don't want to do? How do you teach them that through play?

The short answer is: you don't. 

There is only one kind of "hard work" we must do in life that we don't want to do: that is the hard work an external force imposes on us.

When it's not freely chosen, it's always "hard work," for everyone, all the time. When a man is, for instance, starving, he'll do almost anything for food, including the most degrading or routine work, including begging. The modern-day Hobbesians might say, "That's not work." Bull. It may be the most difficult work of all in our society, made even more excruciating by those who will heartlessly yell, "Get a job!" Those legions of children in third world countries who spend their days combing through landfills in search of something, anything, they and their families can use for survival are working harder than any of us have ever worked in our lives. The work of mere survival is the most grinding, soul crushing, hard work there is. And if this is what the critics are talking about, then god save us all.

Thankfully, most of us, most of the time are not merely surviving, yet most of us have found ourselves at one time or another working in jobs we hate, in which "superiors" tell us what to do. This is, I think, the kind of "hard work" many of the critics are talking about; this is the shut-up-and-do-it, nose-to-the-grindstone, mind-numbing future for which they would have us training children. This kind of hard work, in fact, is hardly different than the work of survival in that the only reward is the paycheck, perhaps a pat on the back, because it sure isn't the work itself. I'm here to tell you that if all you're in it for is the paycheck it better be one hell of a paycheck, which, not coincidentally is rarely the case with this kind of work.

And then there's the question of how one would go about teaching this kind of hard work. The only way I can see to do that is to turn oneself into that kind of boss-them-around superior. Sorry, I'm not taking part in that: I will not be part of pre-grinding those noses and pre-numbing those minds, just so some future superior has a more malleable underling to boss around. 

But no, they then say, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the work ethic; the idea that you have to work hard to get what you want out of life. How will they ever learn that if all they do is play?

That requires no special effort on my part because it's built into play and simply cannot be taught through a system of external rewards and punishments.

In a comment on yesterday's post, Anonymous wrote: "When something is challenging it ceases being fun, therefore they check out." Boy, that hasn't been my experience at all in a play-based curriculum. In fact, for most kids, most of the time, it's just the opposite. 

A child may not exactly enjoy the hard work of re-building the foundation of her block structure over and over again to get to the point where she can, say, attempt to create a cantilevered addition, yet she will repeatedly do it in order to make yet another attempt. And she may well ultimately reach a point at which it has all come crashing down so many times that she concludes her idea is impossible, at least for today, and walk away, not wanting to build that foundation one more time, but she has persevered until she has concluded her current efforts are for naught. That doesn't mean she's given up forever, only that she has acquired the wisdom to know that she needs to move on, to learn more before trying that again. This doesn't mean she hasn't learned the value of "hard work," only that she is figuring out that without "smart work," it's just work.

Tackling freely chosen challenges is what play is all about. What I suppose Anonymous is referring to is when children, all people really, are saddled with challenges they care nothing about, like a classroom assignment, or when the reason they have to "care" is the fear of some sort of punishment, like a bad grade. That's when it's not fun, that's when it's merely hard work undertaken for a "paycheck."

The "work ethic" is not about following orders; it is about following passions. What about the heavily tattooed skateboarder I watched the other day, repeatedly attempting to teach himself a trick, running full speed, dropping his board under his feet, then attempting to ride up the railing of a footbridge? I must have watched him attempt it 30 or 40 times before my dogs (who I was walking) insisted we move on. Each time he either fell or otherwise failed to live up to his self-imposed standard (although it all looked incredible to me). Yet each time he picked himself up and trudged back to his starting point again and again. I don't know if he ever satisfied himself, but I doubt he'd have ever worked so hard if the motivation was something as meager as a paycheck or avoiding punishment. In that case he likely would have stopped at "good enough." No, this was the work ethic writ large and no teacher taught it to him: he learned it through play.

I consider my time in the classroom with the children to be play. I could, I'm sure, earn more money doing other things, and I suppose there is in there somewhere the idea that I could, in fact, be punished by being fired by the parents for whom I work, but they hardly boss me around. Yet I feel I work quite hard, every day even without those external "motivations." I assure you that without the hard work, without the challenge, if this were to somehow become turnkey or rote, I would be miserable, even if my "superiors" offered me higher pay, even if they threatened to punish me. Sure, there are aspects of my daily routine that I approach with a kind of irritation, but like the girl building the block foundation over and over, I do it because I really, really want to see if I can make that damn cantilever work.

Play is always "fun," in the sense that it's freely chosen and freely engaged, but play is not the opposite of hard work. It teaches hard work and it does it so much better than neediness, rewards, and punishments, those external slave masters that ultimately suck the joy out of any endeavor. Play teaches hard work as an intrinsic trait, which is, after all the essence of any ethic, including the work ethic.

There is one line from that blog post commenter's criticism that I recall verbatim. It was his concluding remark: "If all I'd had to do at school was play, I would have loved school." 

That, my friends, is exactly the point: it's only when we play that we love to learn. 

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grace said...

My thoughts exactly, Teacher Tom - formed over 18 years of being a teacher, a children's librarian, and a parent. Thanks for a great post.

Judi Pack said...

Love this post, thanks.
Of course children have fun during play but, in my experience, children are most interested in solving a mystery or a problem and experiencing adventure. Sounds to me like what scientists and artists do!

Michelle said...

SO well said. So right on. SO insightful. I can't wait to share it.
I play as well, all day when I can. And playing with others, collaboratively, is a big challenge every day -because all of us have a drive to be better than the sum of our parts. Collaboration and relationships are rewarding and fun and playful. They are also challenging. Often conflicts arise that give us all sorts of opportunities to learn some skills and strategies -and come to solutions and ideas that are far better than what one alone finds.
Not only have these playful days been personally building my own strength and confidence, and giving me energy (tiring as growing pains can be); but have been character building in innumerable other ways, as well as skill building, and inspiring in my own arts and sciences during my less predesigned or premeditated times of the day.
Whoa! Thank you!

Michelle said...

PS. Judi- it sounds like solving a mystery, or a problem, or going on an adventure, or what artists or scientists do... all of it, sounds like play to me! I wonder if it's that we have so many ideas about play as far as what it is and how many different types of play there are ("free" "unstructured" "intentional" "directed" etc.). I'm learning about playful inquiry, and states of relaxed alertness, and terms like these, as being all aspects of play. No wonder there are so many books out there now deconstructing just the one word, "play!"

Abbie said...

So very true. I spent the last week exploring the space program and Apollo missions with my physics classes and I think you would appreciate President Kennedy's speech at Rice University, in reference to going to the moon, when he said "We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard..." Anyway, I think what you're saying applies to all grades, it's just the type of play that changes with age.

Kai said...

Dude - you're so right on! The kids here learning to tie their laces are no strangers to hard work. They persevere, they get help from peers, they try out new methods, they take pride when successful - just like me and my adult friends when we're tackling a project at "work".

Rachel Ash said...

Don't forget that the Roman word for "school" ("ludus") is also the word for "game" or "play".

Teaching students through play is an ancient method--we forget that thanks to the factory model that was introduced thanks to the industrial revolution in America. But the Romans and teachers throughout the centuries understood that great classrooms are not silent and unfun.

Michelle said...

AWESOME Rachel! I didn't know that about the Roman word "ludus!" VERY cool.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Rock on, Tom. Agree whole heartedly. Gotta play it forward.

Teacher Jessica said...

I would argue that when the kids are really working, or "playing", they are not having fun. They are not not having fun either. They are not aware of how they are feeling about the activity at all because they are so deeply engaged in DOING it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call that being in "flow" and you won't see much of that deep engagement in the factory based model.

Thank you for a thorough and strong post!

Marcy said...

I would venture that "when it gets challenging it's no longer fun" might be about the things that are too far beyond the current skill or developmental level -- there's "challenging enough" and there's "too challenging," and there's scaffolding for helping kids meet a new challenge just beyond their independent grasp.

What I want to know, though, is whether -- and how -- I should / could rethink chores at home... I really do want A to help me fold the laundry and whatever other chores we've got that are within her ability... and I don't want to go the route of making it an entertainment every time nor do I want to threaten and prod every time... there "should" be some intrinsic value in a chore done well in the company of a loved one, and I'm not quite sure how to get there.

Aunt Annie said...

Can't resist suggesting to Marcy that she challenge her children to suggest ways to make laundry tasks more fun. She might be surprised with what they come up with, including perhaps some challenges to her assumption that folding the laundry is even necessary or important compared to other things that could be happening...

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you for that Aunt Annie . . . Folding laundry, like making beds, is a rote chore that, for me, has no intrinsic value beyond tidiness. After a few go rounds, most kids get that and are ready to move on. In my family the laundry tends to remain piled atop the dryer and beds only get made when we have company coming over and we're too "ashamed" to let them see how we really live. =)

I've heard some people say that they enjoy rote chores, but I'm not one of them. I only do them myself when absolutely necessary, so I can hardly expect my child to be eager about them. She has the rest of her life to be an adult and be occasionally motivated by shame. In the meantime her room is a stereotypical teenager room, she has friends over all the time and it doesn't seem to bother her at all. Most days I think she's better off than me.

angie said...

Im so glad i read this!!!! I completely whole heartedly agree¡!!!!!¡!

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. As someone who teaches at the college level and has a child in a wonderful pre-school, I've been thinking about how I can better make my own teaching based on play. Keep up the good work.

Montana said...

Fabulous! "If all I'd had to do at school was play, I would have loved school." This should be your new slogan!
My 2 1/2 does not know her letters but she plays memory and candy land every day with a passion. When she discovers letters to be a game, she will learn them in a span of 24 hours.

Michelle said...

Maybe there is some intrinsic value in doing chores. I've found that organization and rhythm in the home relates to organization and rhythm in my mind. I learned that the Free School (Democratic School) in Portland once went a couple weeks without cleaning (the students all voted, as they do with all aspects of their education). After a few days, a few children found it difficult to concentrate. After a couple weeks they had all found that they couldn't locate tools and materials, that they didn't feel comfortable, that they felt scattered in the mind. They ended up taking a VERY long time to clean the school. That is how they figured out that it is better to take 30 minutes a day or less, for many reasons.

Chantel said...

I agree with you when you say

"I assure you that without the hard work, without the challenge, if this were to somehow become turnkey or rote, I would be miserable, even if my "superiors" offered me higher pay, even if they threatened to punish me."

I had one of those preschool teaching jobs, and it was terrible. The children were fantastic, but my co-teacher (although a very nice woman) was all rote. It was very difficult and even though it was before I became an educated educator I knew I could not stay there. I made had higher wages to start in that program than I will ever make in my current position even if I stay for 40 years. It was NOT worth it. I get to play every day at work. And it is hard work. I am tired every day when I come home, but I am inspired every day to go back, and continue to learn with the children and adults around me. Thanks for the hard work, Teacher Tom!

Judi Pack said...

Yes Michelle it is all play--pure and simple. I was referring more to what Jessica said. It's not so much fun as deep engagement that children are often experiencing in play--the "flow." They really work hard during play.

pwlsax said...

The value of play is beyond quesiton - except for the kind of people who DON'T respect play. We at least need to prepare young people to work with, and for, old school teachers, bosses and authorities.

Try to see beyond the practicalities and take esprit de corps into account. We DO need certain organizations - such as the military - whose culture is toxic on some level, but that members must fully buy into.