Posted in Education, Humanities, Students, Teaching

Does a Lack of Effort Deserve to be Rewarded?

When my wife and I were first married, we had very little money to purchase gifts for others on Christmas.  So, we decided to get all crafty.  Now, my wife really is crafty and great with her hands.  She could turn an ugly piece of fabric into an amazing quilt.  She’s fabulous like that.  I on the other hand am not.  You know the saying used to describe clumsy people who can’t dance?  “You have two left feet.”  That saying was meant for me except I have two left hands.  I can’t seem to create anything beautiful or wonderful.  It’s quite sad.  However, despite my inability to make aesthetically pleasing crafts, I persevere and keep on trying.  So, for our first Christmas as a married couple, my wife made beautiful fabric gift baskets and I tried my hand at whittling.  I had never whittled before and so I had no idea what I was doing.  As this was in the age before Youtube, I didn’t have helpful resources at my fingertips.  So, I just rolled with it.  I got a chunk of wood and a Dremel and began crafting a bowl.  Yes, that’s right, I said, I started out whittling a bowl.  I jumped right into the deep end of wood crafting with an incredibly challenging project.  After days of working the wood out of the bowl area, I began sanding it down.  I wish I had a picture of this magnificently horrid creation so that you could see just how bad of an artist I truly am.  It was epically awful.  It was uneven and only held about 25 peanuts, but I gave it to a family member as a Christmas gift that year.  While I could have bought a wooden bowl for about five to ten dollars and saved myself the hours of labor, I gave my then brother in-law a handcrafted, wobbly wooden bowl for his home bar.

In retrospect, I should have asked for help or sought out a book to help me learn how to craft a wooden bowl the proper way.  Instead, I didn’t utilize any help or resources and made a shoddy creation.  Help would have been very beneficial to me in this particular endeavor.  The thing is, I’m not one to ask for help.  Although I have gotten better over the years of realizing how vital help can be to my growth as a teacher and person, back then I was very stubborn.  I wanted to do it all myself, and that was what lead to my demise as a whittler.  After that wretched bowl, I gave up trying to be world-class wood worker.  Had I effectively learned how to craft a wooden bowl, I might now be working as a master craftsman at a fancy store where they sell funky things made out of wood.  I’ve always wanted a computer mouse crafted from wood.  That would be so cool, as long as it was sanded down so that I didn’t get any splinters.  Ouch!

Help and assistance can be a very useful tool in many cases.  I learned how to solve the Rubik’s Cube this summer because of the helpful tutorial videos on Youtube.  My students have learned how to use the online computer coding program Codecombat because they practiced, asked for help, and solved their problems.  In the classroom though, help could also be a crutch when used ineffectively.  If a student struggling with a math problem asks a peer for help and the peer just gives him the correct answer, no learning happens.  So clearly, too much help can be detrimental to the learning process.  But, how much help is too much help?

Yesterday in Humanities class, my students worked on their Canaan Community Unit final project.  Three of the goals of the project are to help the students see the benefits in taking copious notes, paying attention during class discussions, and asking insightful questions.  The students can not do any further research on the town of Canaan, as everything they need to include in their final project has already been discussed in class on at least three separate occasions.  The students were told to take notes, as they could be used on the final project.  While most of the students seem to be including descriptive and accurate information about the town, two of our ESL students are struggling.  They started researching the town’s history even after they were specifically told not to.  Even when they were researching though, they had looked up the wrong Canaan.  They had found lots of great information on the biblical town called Canaan.  They were clearly very confused.  I reminded them both of the discussions we had in class and the notes they had taken.  I made sure both of those students had taken good notes.  I watched them take effective, detailed notes but they were not using them in creating this final project.  Why?  I was baffled.  I asked one of the struggling students where his notes were and he admitted that he had lost them.  So, unfortunately, this student was not only confused, but he had actually tried to be prepared and lost his notes.  While I told the students that they could not do more research and could not ask a peer for help regarding the information about the town’s history, I felt like I needed to support this struggling ESL student.  He tried to be prepared but lost his notes, and he was obviously confused by the assignment.  If I help him though, am I taking away a learning opportunity?  If I help him everytime he tries and struggles, will he learn anything this year?  Am I helping him grow as a learner by providing him extra support that I would not provide other students?  Would it be equitable if I helped this one student?  If I provide him help, do I need to provide the other struggling ESL student the same help even if he wasn’t putting forth the same effort?  The other student had notes and was choosing not to use them.  I even reminded him to take out his notes and use them to complete the project.  He refused.  I don’t feel like rewarding his lack of effort would teach him anything.  If I were to help this other student, he would definitely not learn anything.  In fact, he would learn that when he struggles and displays a lack of effort, he will receive help from the teacher.  This is certainly not a message I want him to take away from this experience.  What do I do?

So, I decided to provide very basic support to the one student who was putting in the effort to accomplish the task at hand.  I found a very simplistic description of the town’s history and sent him the link.  In the email, I explained that he could use the information on this website and nothing more.  Now, it’s up to him to choose to use the help I gave him or not.  I wonder what he will do.  I didn’t give him the answers and he still has to sift through the website to find the answers to the questions he needs to address in the project.  He will need to put forth even more effort to utilize the help I provided him with.  However, if he uses this help, he should be able to produce a final project that better addresses the graded objectives.  I did not provide this same help to the other student.  Is that fair?  No, but then again life is not fair.  As Rick Wormeli pointed out in one of his books, “Fair isn’t always equal.”  As a teacher, I need to reward effort and not a lack thereof.  Perhaps the student who did not display great effort in class on Saturday, will produce a final project that meets the objectives.  However, if he is not able to meet the objectives, I will have a conversation with him regarding his lack of effort.  I want him to understand that help will be provided when effort is displayed.  To me, a lack of effort should not be rewarded with help.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

One thought on “Does a Lack of Effort Deserve to be Rewarded?

  1. As you mention, this is a tricky situation. I think the key is in knowing your students well; who is truly making the effort and who is not. As a teacher who has taken time to learn a second language, I have a soft spot for ESL students because the period of transition and language acquisition is a difficult one, that often takes time and plenty of struggle. You are right, though–lack of effort should not be rewarded. Difficulty with language (or anything else) should not be a crutch.

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