I’ve been thinking a lot about school and the way that some students seem to skate through while other students work really hard for average (or below average) grades. These differences in ability are obvious to teachers and they are obvious to other students. Unfortunately, I think these differences also generate a type of stereotype threat. Students who don’t excel in the standard academic format begin to expect that they won’t. Neither teacher nor student learns to look for creative ways to demonstrate knowledge and learning. Neither teacher nor student learns to appreciate or respond to academic diversity.
My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Barrutt, was an old man who gave out lemon drops for good grades on assignments. One day, he gave lemon drops to about half the class–myself included–and one of the students who didn’t get one went ballistic. This student–we’ll call him Jonas–jumped up and pushed several desks out of the way until there were desks all around him. He tipped one empty desk onto its side, and then stood in the middle of this circle of empty desks like he was trying to decide whether to scream or cry.
Mr. Barrutt told the rest of us to move to the far side of the room while he talked to Jonas. He asked Jonas why he was so angry since it wasn’t the first time that he hadn’t gotten a lemon drop.
Jonas yelled, “But this time I worked really hard. I worked REALLY, REALLY hard so I could get a fucking lemon drop!”
Mr. Barrutt replied calmly, “I know that you’re angry and that’s okay. The thing about hard work is that it takes time. You work really, really hard today and tomorrow and the next day, and eventually it pays off. It wouldn’t be hard if you only had to do it once, right? Keep working hard and you’ll get a lemon drop.”
I don’t remember if that student ever got a lemon drop. I like to think that he did and that we made a big deal of it. What I do remember is looking at my lemon drop and thinking that I didn’t feel like I’d worked for it at all. Lemon drops just sort of landed on my desk. It didn’t seem fair. I knew that this other student was a good person–a good person with an anger problem, no doubt, but a good person still–and I wanted him to get a lemon drop because he worked for it and I didn’t. Both Jonas and I had learned something about inequality, something these Capuchin monkeys also know (note their version of desk-toppling).
This realization was powerful. It pitted hard work against natural talent in a very dramatic, very real way. For the first time, I was thinking about privilege. I was privileged in school because I have a natural talent for the academic setting. I faced many challenges throughout my academic career, huge obstacles related to poverty and the simple fact that life happens, but trying to figure out how an assignment worked or how to solve a problem on paper was never one of those challenges.
In retrospect, I think Mr. Barrutt was both quite wise and quite naive. Hard work is part of the big picture–and probably the biggest part–but it isn’t the only part. Learning styles are also a part. Multiple intelligences. Teaching strategies. Non-academic factors like poor nutrition that have a tremendous academic impact. Teachers recognizing teaching moments. The quality of the education that came before a student stepped into their current classroom. Self-esteem and the willingness to ask questions. Teaching philosophies. Self-confidence and the willingness to take risks so they can learn new things.
What Mr. Barrutt was trying to do was reward effort, but what he was actually rewarding was an outcome that sometimes had something to do with effort and sometimes didn’t. He was accidentally generating a system of perceived inequality–a system in which some people were rewarded simply for being who they were and others were denied rewards for the same reason. Jonas’s anger wasn’t an appropriate response to this inequality, but neither was Mr. Barrutt’s reaction to Jonas (although, admittedly, it was a better and more progressive reaction than sending the kid to jail as might happen in one of today’s classrooms). Mr. Barrutt’s reaction only reinforced what Jonas was reacting to and didn’t offer Jonas any better way of coping with the fact that he had to work harder for fewer rewards. It also didn’t help Jonas identify what Jonas was really good at so that he could use his strengths to better his academic performance.
Education is complicated. When we simplify academic outcomes to “hard work,” we diminish the value of human diversity. Our challenge as educators isn’t and shouldn’t be to teach students how to solve a problem on paper in return for some extrinsic reward that may or may not show up in their lives. Our challenge as educators is to teach students what to do when life doesn’t give them lemon drops even though they’ve worked really, really hard for one.