Determined work habits must be learned early

OlympianNovember 4, 2013 

According to Thomas Edison, “A genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.” Steve Jobs was “convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the nonsuccessful ones is pure perseverance.” Are Edison and Jobs worth listening to?

According to a study by Opportunity Nation, 1 in 7 young adults ages 16-24 are not in school and not working. Some of these millennials are wandering our downtown streets and sleeping in doorways. Some were born into dysfunction. Others grew up in more supportive environments. Perhaps what links them is a belief that coasting through school was acceptable. It isn’t. It’s the big lie. We either lie by omission – by not telling students how hard they must work – or by explicitly telling them they are in school to do as little as possible.

It’s likely that work habits are set from the earliest grades – kindergarten, first, and second. There is a compelling body of research that third-graders who are below grade level will never close the gap.

The lessons of elementary school should include making friends with an alarm clock, in order to be at school every day, on time. Once at school, even our youngest students can experience the satisfaction of doing quality work and turning it in on time. (Try mailing in your voter ballot a week late and then telling your child deadlines don’t matter.) Those building blocks we see in every kindergarten classroom might symbolize the internal academic building blocks already being put into place.

During the middle school years, you should be deeply concerned if your child is not doing at least 90 minutes of homework every day, followed by teacher feedback. High school students should spend at least three hours on nightly homework, again with teacher input. Don’t let your son or daughter avoid homework just because you read that LeBron James and Tom Brady are so good at their respective sports that their coaches have excused them from practices. If your child is never frustrated by having to learn a difficult skill, ask yourself how he or she will fare when it’s time to enter college, compete for a job, and/or attain food and shelter. School should be hard because adult life is harder. This is not sad – it’s simply what is.

Too many of our students do not know and use basic rules of literacy. They are handicapped by an inability to write a correct sentence or proofread a paragraph. They haven’t read enough books to develop a complex and precise vocabulary. Being able to communicate ideas is critical to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) success. Grammar matters. Why should anyone spend his or her whole life mixing up “there, their, and they’re” or “your/you’re?”

Steve Jobs weighed in on a related topic: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” So, I ask you, how does anyone connect things without memorizing? Maybe the new Common Core curriculum will address this question. In this week’s election, voters hopefully understand enough about genetics to make a reasoned decision about food labeling. There is no critical thinking or problem solving without an ability to connect facts, observations, and understandings that are actually in our heads and not simply on a website.

When we send students out of our schools knowing they lack basic habits of success, we should feel ashamed. When we fail to confront abuse and neglect, we should pledge to do better. And when we let out children wash away their school years watching screens (movies, television, social media) in their bedrooms, we should break the connection. Each school year matters. There is, literally, no time to waste.

Pamela Boyd has a master’s degree in elementary education. A member of The Olympian Board of Contributors, she can be reached at harbortalk@comcast.net.

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