In a recent article titled “Virtually Exhausted” William Deresiewicz, editor at The American Scholar, suggested that believing hard work is a way to achieve is “one of those notions that is so stupid it has to embody a deeply held belief“.
In this notion he refers to the Protestant religious system that has elevated hard work to the status of virtue which, Deresiewicz argues, has infiltrated the work ethics of America with presumably with some terrible consequences, one of them being wide spread exhaustion. According to him, working hard to reach a dream couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Deresiewicz, because distribution of talent is “undemocratic” and hard work is futile, just an illusion of choice for the naïve masses.
This elitist view calmly dismisses any hopes that one has for changing less fortunate circumstances. It begs the question of what is talent. It must be something you are born with, something that takes you to through an Ivy League college and gives you secure employment for life. It’s a privilege that cannot be acquired through hard work.
Just last week, whilst on the other side of the planet, Gina Reinhart, the Australian mining magnate, caused a furore when she said that if you want to get wealthy “spend less time drinking, or smoking, or socialising, and more time working”. This may sound like a good tip to the wasteful, but it is nothing more unsettling than having a person that inherited a fortune of billions of dollars to give this kind of advice to the populace in general. The thousands of people, who work hard deep in the mines owned by her scratching the guts of the planet in search for minerals, don’t make themselves wealthy. They make her wealthy. In this context, the message has the opposite meaning, because the reality in the mine can be used to prove the point that hard work doesn’t make you rich, luck does.
So far, this idea of hard work does seem trivial. Who would want to labour when in the end there is nothing to celebrate, there is no change, but just more struggle when the genes won’t let you have it?
And yet, there are many who have no doubt that hard work is necessary to make it in life. Research studies show that if you concentrate your efforts through hard work you can master almost any skills. It is estimated that you need to invest ten years to achieve mastery in your chosen domain, if you put in the long hours. People who were born without such talent can succeed when initial evidence suggests otherwise. The legendary Wayne Gretzky comes to mind as a brilliant example. Against all odds, he became the best of all those who were deemed to be ‘talented’.
There is a common element of caution that we can learn from what Deresiewicz and Reinhart said: hard work without creation does not pay well.
If Deresiewicz remembers well, the core philosophy of The American Scholar is based the eponymous speech delivered almost 200 years ago. In that speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson talks brilliantly about the need for each of us to aspire to become One Man, as someone that is not subjugated to routine of his craft. For a scholar, that is to become a Man Thinking, not just “a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking”. He goes on to say “History and exact science must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create”.
We suffer for too much hard work as a drill, not as a creation. We should question the mindless long work hours, but not the hard work driven by passion and desire to create something better. Replace the industrial factories with creative studios, repetition with innovation, and slavery with freedom.
Hard work is encouraged in schools. It is one of the character traits that are most valued as a prerequisite for individual and social improvement. Try to tell a teacher that talent is to be praised and not the effort! If we raise our children with the belief that hard work is an illusionary key to success, then our future is bleak.
“I cannot figure it out!” he said in frustration. My son was distressed. After a long gruelling schedule which started at 5:30am, by the time he started working on maths at 7pm after late and gruelling tennis training, the homework just seemed too much. He could not concentrate; the exhaustion was plainly clear in his body language: slouched shoulders, long face, and heavy eyelids.
I asked him how much homework he had to do that night. He had to work on maths and history. I suggested he does history first, but he wasn’t enthused by the idea. He wanted to do the more difficult part first. Despite the frustration and lack of progress, he did not want to back down and give up. He was not ready for that yet.
I offered to help. He insisted we start with the exercise which was causing him so much grief. After reading the problems and the first question, I realised it was in fact quite easy. His issue was mental blockage; he got stuck in a negative loop. I asked him the same question in a slightly different way and his face suddenly lighten up. The tiredness was gone like magic and the frustration disappeared as if it never happened. He answered the question so quickly, I could not follow him. Next, he hurriedly wrote the answer and in a flash the entire exercise was finished.
We talked a bit more that night about how they get the homework. I thought the teachers would guide their students about which exercises they should focus on as a minimum together with some problem solving strategies. It turned out that it wasn’t like that. In some cases, the system leaves it entirely up to the students to do their homework as they see it fit. If they learn something about geometry, the teacher would describe the homework for the next day by giving them a broad list of questions from which they can choose; nothing about individual problem solving strategy.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The traditional routine homework is the mirror copy of one way lecture in the classroom: a monotonous activity for etching knowledge in the students’ memories. Drill, drill, drill! The homework effort is considered linear. You work more, you solve more exercises and you get better at it. You work less, and you are not as prepared in answering the same type of questions in an exam session. It sounds logical. But is the effort linear? Is the student ready to spend energy in equal portions of effective effort during the homework time? The anatomy of a school day shows too many variations and stress points to support the hypothesis of a linear study. What happens when the student doesn’t know what to do? What happens if the student is not motivated or if it takes too long to solve one problem causing a mini time crisis?
If skill is required to solve a particular type of exercise, which is not covered or explained in the manual, how would the student overcome that hurdle? I am not suggesting that students should be hand-held all the way to save them of any pain, but in the current situation of information and tasks overload, students need a different kind of support.
The key is to teach thinking strategies, the art of coping with stress, how to think in different ways, be effective and stay sane. In the current model teachers give students the homework without any of these personal tools, there is nothing about how to think and how to deal with difficult situations. They teach them no ‘tricks’ about how to deal with frustration and how to recognise their own abilities and talents.
Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy said in a Ted conference presentation that the schools should let the students read the theory at home and do the homework at school where teachers can help them to learn how to think, and how to solve problems. It makes sense.
How damaging could this be for students that get stuck in some of these issues? “I feel so dumb!” my son told me before he solved the exercise. Why would he say that, when he is one of the best student in his grade? Because when you don’t succeed at working out something you feel dumb. What happens with students that don’t get to see other ways of thinking and the experience is repeated over a few weeks pushing them into a negative and self-downgrading belief? I am wondering how much of this could be attributed to the attitude of disconnect from school that some students have.
Anyway, I would argue, that schools should teach students how to deal with stress and recognise when dangerous thinking habits can form and take them down. Very often, students, and this goes for any adult too, cannot find solutions not because they don’t have the capacity to, but because they lack the emotional and cognitive tools to deal with difficult situations.
Why don’t schools teach thinking smart?
The problem with schools is that they have superimposed a different agenda. The performance indicators are not designed to measure improvements in students thinking and positive attitude, but scores at maths and literature assessment. For example, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia is the dominant metric used for measuring school and student performance. The NAPLAN results are used for public show and tell for everyone to see which schools perform better. On My School web site, the school performance is measured using the NAPLAN results. The information presented invites parents to judge a school based on NAPLAN results and financial profile.
An entire industry flourished under NAPLAN, “to capitalise on their [students, schools, teachers] anxieties” as Christopher Bantick put it in an article published in The Age. These assessment scores have become the focus of the public perception inching out other learning priorities (“Why teach a Shakespeare text at year 9 when it will be interrupted by a month of trial tests, spelling lists, endless grammar exercises and punctuation: sonnets out, NAPLAN in.”
There is no time for learning about thinking.
We talk abundantly about 21st century skills, but schools are too busy calibrating their operation in compliance with industrial educational standards. Everybody knows this, but it is just not enough time and the system doesn’t seem to find the resources and the determination to make a drastic change.
Will the next generation of students be able to cope with a world that changes dramatically when the static knowledge absorbed during the school time might be of little use? The Knox Grammar School headmaster John Weeks stated once that the focus on NAPLAN results “threatens to make us factories for one-dimensional students“. 40 years ago the education system was giving students tools which they could use with confidence to manage a career in organisations with fixed hierarchies, with prospect of lifetime employment. Today, the system is still giving students the same tools, but they are of little value. Back then the school classes were a rehearsal of future work place scenarios. Now, the class monologue of lecturing teachers and the linear homework are a rehearsal that prepares students for a scenario that is increasingly irrelevant in the real life.
Higher education faces similar problems, even at the top of the food chain. In “The Organization Kid”, published in The Atlantic in 2001, David Brooks describes what has become of most students studying at top universities in US: “… at the top of meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious”. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with being “bright, morally earnest” but if this is the product of a sausage factory like education system, it is a problem. When education is like a massive train where everyone is on board set for the same destination (get the exams right) no one will know what to do when the train needs to stop at a different destination.
Let’s drop the grades!
Maybe the grades are the culprit? Having a measurement system locked onto a model that is as relevant today as it hand crafting is to computer programming forces everyone to focus on the wrong outcomes. At the core of what we need to possess as a skill is the ability to figure out the answer to a complex question by interacting with data sources and other people.
I don’t mean that in a ‘trick’ way. I mean it as an ability to understand what is going on; what are the personal preferences, talents and experience and decide how to get information, learn and apply that knowledge to produce an outcome over time. This requires a capacity to evaluate the environment, but also to self-evaluate. Schools could teach students the art of self-evaluation and give them tools to deal with difficulties in ways that suits their condition.
The focus on grades, takes the focus away from how to become more productive, how to be confident, how to deal with your own difficulties, and how to adapt. The grades are artificial and encourage toxic competitiveness. Instead of grades we should have a system that describes personal attributes and skills. As an example, this system could give the following value “marks”: student X is agile, fast and detail driven while student Y is methodical, perceptive and creative. Student X had a preference for sports, mastering kinetic skills, and has an interest in operations; she has worked on organising sport events, robotics or public transport management. Student Y has interest for research in human sciences, social behaviour and organisation of enterprises; he has worked on writing essays and organising surveys.
By focusing on personal growth, mastering learning, self-discovery, problems-solving, creativity and collaboration, the students would be given tools they will be using for the rest of their lives. The grades are not that important anyway.
We mostly think of data as something we put in into the systems using electronic forms. Human operators pour in data all around the world. There is also data about data, which is what mostly computers do with their invisible algorithms, and then there is data generated by machines equipped with sensors that measure all sorts of parameters. Referred to as the Internet of Things, this network of devices collects data incessantly streaming them into large databases. This data stream is about to explode, dwarfing the data collected by human operators.
Take the healthcare for example. Traditionally, the data collection occurs at healthcare facilities. You go there, a friendly nurse plugs into you a device that measures your blood, your heart, whatever is needed to help doctors produce a diagnostic. Once you are done, the data stream stops. On exceptional occasions you are given a device to carry with you for data sampling. As the sensors become cheaper and smaller, when it comes to data collection the healthcare industry starts to blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside of their facilities. Carrying monitoring devices will become normal creating a huge amount of data.
Everything that touches our lives will be equipped with sensors: the house, the office, the cars, the roads, you name it. With IPv6, the number of connectable devices is practically unlimited. Someone calculated that 1038 IP addresses will be available. Imagine how that world will look like.
WiTricity, a company that invented a system of charging a battery wirelessly, is considering the idea of powering the cars through mini generators planted into the road. This is an incredible idea. Cars flowing (driverlessly?) through the highway absorbing power from the road as they roll smoothly to their destination will be in constant dialogue with a huge network of small devices designed to identify them, and measure the energy consumption and other parameters. This is a data flood alright.
Who or what is going to handle all this data? Who/what is going to make sense out of all this? Forget about privacy – that will go away anyway – there is no place to hide, but handling this data will be a huge challenge.
On one hand we will use analytical tools to examine data and make decisions. This is a slow process that suits us, humans, to have time to figure out things. On the other hand you need faster decision systems that will respond to situations. Large financial institutions in US are already going through a huge redesign of their organisations by replacing human traders with ultra-fast machines that could execute optimised trades at lightning speed. We will have that adopted in healthcare, in transportation and other areas.
A good question is what are the system design principles we need to adopt in a world of fast computers and of an infinity of networked devices? Do we need to learn completely new skills that allow us to handle the increased cognitive load and to interact with computer systems in radically different ways, skills that are not taught in schools or elsewhere? At the moment, there is a growing disconnect between a schooling system obsessed with assessing numeracy and literacy skills and the transformed world in which we live in. Perhaps the technical system design needs to be merged into a social system design so that we don’t rely on highly skilled analysts and machines for making decisions, but integrate the computer network within higher order social networks.
In a recent article published in New York Times (“Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters”) David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz discuss a research study directed by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow from Vanderbilt University which demonstrates that people who have higher level of working memory capacity have a distinct competitive advantage in their careers. The correlation between significant successful career and the size of the working memory is extremely high, too high not to be meaningful.
So, if you happen to be lucky enough to have been bestowed by Mother Nature with a large working memory capacity you will have it easy in life. You still need to work hard, but you are likely very successful and not struggling. And what happens if you are not that lucky? You will have to work harder, the conventional wisdom says.
The problem is there are no accessible methods that we can use to assess the working memory. There are no benchmarks. You could find books and magazines and web sites with official assessment kits and quizzes to measure your IQ, but not the level of your working memory.
Let’s assume you know the capacity of your working memory. What could you do about it? I think you could do a few things to improve the odds of success because this attribute is only one condition in your pathway to greater achievements and its influence depends on other factors. Intelligence, good character, capacity for sustained effort and motivation, to name a few other attributes, are all critical elements to success. It is not necessary that all of them are strong, but it all depends how good your strategy is in using them in a smart way. For instance if the level of your working memory is lower, this has an impact on your multitasking abilities and your capacity to handle big chunks of complex information. You could compensate that by controlling your pace. With a slower pace, you could patiently use your strong cognitive skills to process the same complex information, but it just takes a bit longer. If on top of this you use smart cognitive tools then in the long-term you could achieve the same performance levels.
If you perfect your mental frames and have a clear understanding of fundamental cognitive structures, you could accelerate your learning with practice. This was one of the most remarkable observations discovered at the Kahn Academy when processing data with the online analytical tools: students who normally would fall behind in a standard classroom environment, if they take their time to master the study units, they eventually pick up the pace once they successfully consolidated their understanding of the fundamental cognitive structures discussed in the respective study units regardless of how long it takes to do that.
This is a big promise of the education in the future. Our advances in understanding how these metacognitive skills (thinking strategies) could be used to adapt the approach to learning and problem solving to our personal profile with better chances at getting closer to what we are really capable of. Unfortunately, education in its current industrial format just focuses on a simplistic manifestation of our abilities as they are limited to a few skills that rely heavily on the use of working memory. This is mostly obvious in numerical computation and verbal abilities. The traditional literacy and numeracy subjects are the core of the learning and teaching activities targeting systematic knowledge acquisition without achieving mastery of thinking skills. This is reflected in the structure of the formal of assessment programs. Education doesn’t emphasize very much the importance of thinking strategies, which would give young students a valuable life toolset. If we teach the students how to become better at organising their thinking, they will achieve more in their lives, and in the end they will be much happier people because they have a better chance to personal fulfilment.
The relationship between instructional design and constructivists theorists is not one of the friendliest. Sparks fly when arguments break up. So, when I started reading Instructional-Design Theories and Models I expected to find a discourse totally immersed in the traditional instruction based teaching. But this wasn’t the case. Although the main philosophy of teacher driven learning is still there, the tone is very conciliatory, recognising the need of adopting a learner driven approach to learning which is at the heart of constructivist learning theory.
In the Instructional-Design Theories and Models vol.2 a few ID theories are downright constructivist. What a departure from the past. Reigeluth is quite blunt in his characterisation of the education methods from the industrial era: “you couldn’t afford to – and didn’t want to – educate the common labourers too much, or they wouldn’t be content to do boring, repetitive tasks, no to do what they were told to do without questions. So our current paradigm of training and education was never designed for learning; it was designed for sorting”. The whole educational system was based on specific instructions that controlled the learning process.
The reason for this change is simple. There is so much information out there; the technology has had such an impact on everything in society, including the classroom, that the school system cannot possibly create a specific instruction method for each of newly created situations. Besides, one of the highest skills in demand is ability to think independently and solve problems. This requires a teaching method that has to empower the learner to have a say in the learning process.