When I was first learning about MCDS, I was immediately intrigued by one of our guiding belief statements: “Effort is generally more important than ability.” At first glance, that statement struck me as being highly unique and empowering for a student. As a school, we are making a strong claim that we believe in our students and that if they apply themselves, they will experience success. Most would agree that this principle will serve students well as they enter college and life beyond our walls.
As I thought more about it, however, I was left with two lingering questions:
- How do we as a school define effort?
- Does effort look the same for every child?
My first step was to start asking the students what effort means to them. It was interesting to me that every student I asked came up with the same answer: time. To our students, and I would assume to most high school students in the country, effort translates to time. The message seems to be that if one works longer, it is the same as working harder. Further, the message implies that working longer will thus ensure the desired outcome. While that may be the case at times, it is most certainly not a hard and fast rule.
In its most productive form, our guiding belief statement helps kids focus on their process and evaluate what they put into an assignment rather than looking at a grade in a vacuum. Without proper instruction, however, a misguided focus on effort drives students to only press down harder on the gas pedal while their tires dig deeper into the metaphorical mud. We have all heard the saying “work smarter, not harder.” When working with high school students, however, it is important to remember that they do not necessarily know what it means to work smarter!
So, we need to teach them.
As we all know, teaching is not simply a matter of conveying facts and asking students to recite them. At MCDS, we reject a one-size-fits-all approach to education. So why should the teaching of effort be any different?
Thus, as a school community, we need to meet our children where they are. I have had these discussions with faculty and have asked them to be intentional in the way they talk about schoolwork. When instructing students on how to approach their work, teachers are trying to be intentional with their recommendations. It is not enough to tell a student to put in more effort, and so our teachers make it a point to be more specific about what effort looks like for that individual student.
In order to reinforce what we are doing at school, it is also important for the same conversations to take place at home. A great place to start is by asking them what effort means to them and then listening to what they say. Knowing what you know as parents, is their answer likely to get them bogged down in the metaphorical mud? If so, talk with them about things they can control beyond time- things like work environment at home and minimizing distractions. Help them think about what will work for them so they can take ownership over their process and be reflective rather than just spinning their wheels.
As we all know, kids (and adults!) are always more likely to engage more when tasks or assignments are meaningful to them. Thus, from an engagement standpoint, ask them probing questions about connections they are making. Model good learning by being willing to challenge your own assumptions about what they are studying in class. If effort is, at least in part, a function of caring, then simply knowing that we care about their learning, not just the grade on the test, is likely to spur on increased classroom engagement. It also makes the process much more enjoyable for them.
The focus on effort is a wonderful, unique aspect of our school and is, for our kids, a teaching tool full of potential. We all recognize the value of effort, and so it is important that we continue to give our kids the tools necessary to realize what effort means to them so that they are able to finish each day comfortable with themselves and their process.