Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Value Of Hard Work

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.  

"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.

The anonymous commenter 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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Anonymous said...

Great thoughts on play-based education! Now I'm curious... are you in favor of democratic free-schools? Or what kind of education do you find best for children as they get older?

Teacher Tom said...

@lifeistheteacher . . . Free schools, Reggio, Montessori, Waldorf. There are a number of models out there that are child-centered and play-based.

Mignonchang said...

I personally find Montessori's way of calling children's play "work" quite useful in reminding us to respect the drive of the child. When you describe the 'play' that your kids do, we see it is the same manifestation of focus, repetition and satisfaction that Montessori describes. Too often our definition of 'play' ( the image that comes to mind) has been shaped by consumerism and the media images that promote it. When a deeply happy child can sometimes be quiet, even with their brow furrowed, when they have found a work/play worthy of their attention.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about Montessori being a form of "play." At least the way it is interpreted in the USA, there is precious little emphasis on imaginative, fantasy-based childhood experiences. The materials are a means to an end, with a very specific purpose. Instead of materials being a "prop" for social and spiritual connection, a way to build relationships, they are there to teach a very specific skill. How does that fit in with models such as Reggio or even Waldorf?

Courtney Ostaff said...

I think you're right-on in terms of malleability. This is truly what makes me shudder about high-stakes testing--the test prep itself.

The Tuesday after my second daughter was born, 6 weeks ago, I was on maternity leave, and walked in late to take my kindergartener to her expensive, local, private school, which I'd chosen precisely to avoid the kind of authoritarian educational regime that you describe. Do you know what she had been doing those last weeks of school? Learning to fill in bubble sheets. Yep. All the kindies sitting neatly at a table, with their practice bubble sheets, while the teacher walks around. "Row four, the last shape."
I had been planning on that day being the last day before homeschooling, but I felt terribly guilty for sending her after seeing that. I only sent her because I didn't want her to miss the St. Patrick's Day party. She'd been talking about it for weeks. Apparently it's the only fun that they'd been allowed to have for weeks. To make things worse, she had chosen to skip breakfast at McDonald's so that she could go in early and see the St. Patrick's Day stuff the leprechauns left--and the teacher didn't do any of that. No party, no decor, nada--test prep was more important, because they'd lost Monday to a snow day.
I knew they were supposed to be doing test prep all March, but I didn't realize that it involved learning how to fill out sheets. I assumed it was an oral test since they don't know how to read yet--you know, being in kindergarten and all.
I went and picked her up at lunch, took her out to lunch with her father, and never looked back from homeschooling.