Hard work: Vital and overlooked

Here’s a simple thought experiment:

Sam and Ben are eight-year-old identical twins. Like most identical twins, they are the same in almost every way. They do, however, differ in two important respects: Sam is smarter than Ben, but Ben is naturally a harder worker. So here’s my question: All other things being equal (in this case, quite literally), which twin is likely to be a more successful adult?

The answer is Ben, the harder worker. Ben has a far greater chance of achieving success than does Sam. And this is an unacceptable consequence of our country’s inadequate education system, particularly its ineffective education of higher-ability students.

Hard work is a more learned characteristic than is intelligence. Circumstances can easily lead someone to work harder; intelligence is a more fixed attribute (if not fixed entirely). But BOTH of these attributes—hard work and ability—are vital for success.

Let’s look at two possible outcomes for the stars of our story. In this instance, Sam and Ben are in the same math class learning long division. They have four days to learn it before they’re tested. Sam can learn long division in two days; Ben can grasp the same concept in four.

Outcome 1: Sam only wanted to work for one day; Ben toiled for all four. Regardless of ability, Sam is now behind Ben.

Outcome 2: Both twins put in the required time to learn long division. And both do well on the test. BUT Sam’s time was wasted for two days while he twiddled his thumbs waiting for his classmates to catch up. AND WORSE, Sam just learned that he can get by without working hard.

That latter point is a travesty. It’s an utter failure. It’s an embarrassment. It’s all of these things because there will come a time, maybe in college, when Sam hits a wall. He’ll be taking harder classes amongst more competitive peers and something will arise that he can’t skate through. And while he’s more than capable of mastering this concept intellectually, he never learned how to put in the necessary work.

There is an obvious Outcome 3. Sam could be encouraged to finish early, and upon finishing early, he could be rewarded with more advanced content. He would be challenged, he would have to work hard, and he would learn the value and the satisfaction one gets from achieving something through hard work. Sam’s education would maximize his potential—not barely keep it afloat—and he would, over his K–12 career, achieve pretty great things.

So why doesn’t this happen? Because in a classroom with a huge range of ability levels, differentiated instruction is difficult—and very inefficient. A single teacher might be able to teach different lessons to different groups of students, but this model has too many problems. While group A is learning a lesson, what is group B doing? Doing worksheets on their desks by themselves while the teacher is fully consumed with teaching something that’s either too easy or too hard for them? If a class has three groups, the teacher would only be addressing any given student 33 percent of the time. That’s nonsense.

Moreover, in a class of thirty students, what if the advanced group only consists of five students? Does the teacher really spend 33 percent of her time on 17 percent of the students? Even if the teacher does take this route, a student benefits from the ideas and insights of her peers. In brainstorming a challenging problem, the insights of a full class of peers is far better than the insights of only four.

The obvious solution is differentiated classrooms. Our schools should maximize the potential of every student—including their most high-ability students. This would, of course, maximize what each student learns. But much, much more importantly, it would challenge everyone—and, in doing so, teach students how to work hard.

Brandon Wright
Brandon Wright is a Managing Editor and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute