I recently sat with eighth grade parents and listened to Lizzie and David, two current eleventh grade students, explain what to expect in Upper School. As they described their two distinct paths through the challenges and opportunities in ninth and tenth grades, they found a common theme: hard work was a constant in their school lives.
They also saw this effort from their classmates. They noted that students worked differently and often according to their own passions, but everyone was working hard at something. Faculty members described how hard students work in their own words, talking about finding passions and working through a demanding curriculum within a supportive community. Parents talked about watching their children encounter challenges and respond with increased practice and perseverance.
Hard work, it turns out, is a little complicated.
The familiar question about working harder or smarter actually turns out to be a false dichotomy (or false dilemma). For ambitious students, you have to do both. Each year, you have to find ways to work harder and work smarter than you did in the past. Without doing the problem twice to find your own error, without writing drafts and getting feedback, without making math facts automatic, without the countless hours spent practicing our violins or ball handling skills, we end up falling short when there are others who take these steps. I’ve found that Moravian Academy students, especially over many years in our school, are learning the art of determination. They know how to refuse to stop.
At the same time, there are limited hours in the day, and our brains need sleep in order to make connections and learn at a high level. So we have to learn how to be efficient, how to take breaks to reset our brains, how to ask for help and how to use tools and resources to maximize our productivity. This is the very contemporary need to be smart in managing our energies. The successful habits of time management, self-reflection, executive functioning, and self-motivation are ones that I see distinguishing Moravian Academy students every day, especially those who have been learning for multiple years in this kind of environment.
Dr. Carol Dweck explains the link between effort and achievement in a series of highly influential research studies, which have popularized the notions of a growth mindset. In this TEDx talk, she explains that a group of students made dramatic achievement gains “because the meaning of ‘effort’ and ‘difficulty’ were transformed. Before ‘effort’ and ‘difficulty’ made them feel dumb, made them feel like giving up. But now, ‘effort’ and ‘difficulty’—that’s when their neurons are making new connections, stronger connections; that is when they are getting smarter.”
The authors of Neuroteach, a book about the application of mind and brain research in schools, explain this in a remarkably simple way. In the words of Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher (emphasis added):
One word. Three letters. One of the most important words in education. It is my favorite word to say to doubting students as well as skeptical teachers. Do you have a word in mind?
We are going to make the case that this one word is arguably the most impactful word for every teacher, school leader, and parent who wants to help each student meet his or her potential as a learner and as an individual. It is also a word, or mindset, supported by research. But it needs to be used with deliberate care.
Glenn first came across this word as an aspiring NHL ice hockey player when his mother responded to his saying, “I can’t improve my slapshot” by using this word and then sending him outside to practice more. She had a similar response when he once proclaimed, “I can’t juggle a soccer ball a hundred times.” In each case, Glenn’s “can’t” was answered by his mom’s “yet.”