There is little glamorous about work – be it school work, yard work, house work, or even professional work. Work requires an input of time and effort, often without an immediate reward. Certainly then, it is no surprise that doing school work wouldn’t be particularly “cool”. This doesn’t go very far towards explaining why not doing the work is so highly regarded by a student’s peers.
The act of not doing one’s homework isn’t enough to merit popularity. Anyone might forget on occasion, and show up to class the next day unprepared and worried. If the student is fearful of the consequences of their negligence, there is no “coolness” involved. The prestige of not doing the work only appears when a certain attitude is affected.
Students recognize that they are supposed to do their school work, and that to not do it is a “wrong” behavior that can have consequences attached to it. A student who can persuade others that they aren’t worried about the consequences gains stature in the eyes of their classmates. This effect is amplified when the consequence is a simple failing grade that the student can continue to shrug off as unimportant. Worse still, a teacher who shows a compassionate leniency and offers the student time to make up the work demonstrates that the student was indeed correct that the consequences were harmless. With the current push for all students to pass, teachers are often stuck in such a position – unable to fail a student who chooses not to work, knowing that he or she can get away with it.
“Coolness” arises from the fact that a student was daring enough to break the rules and get away with it. The other students cannot help but be envious and wish that they could get away with not performing tasks they dislike. Others will find the daring to try it, and, if unchecked, an entire classroom can come to a standstill, so far as work is concerned.
Early action is important to prevent or at least minimize incomplete (or unattempted) school work. There are several important channels that need to be addressed. Concepts of fun, responsibility, future, and attitude are all important.
A good teacher has the creativity to make some assignments fun, and in those cases, participation is higher than usual. If the learning experience produces a unique object that students can keep, for instance, they exhibit much more interest in the work. If there is a competitive element to a challenge, as in a team competition, there tends to be greater involvement. Original thinking and the chance to be creative often inspires participation. (In a past physics class, even students who never did their work eagerly threw themselves into building a Rube-Goldberg device.) In short, if the work is less boring, students have less reason to not do it. They may even want to do it, forgetting in all the fun that they are actually working and learning.
The notion of personal responsibility grows ever harder to find in today’s society. We like to blame society, institutions, politicians, drugs, disorders, and anything else we can find other than the individual. In some cases, this may be rightly so, but the result is that people learn that they are not responsible for their own actions. Building a sense of responsibility in students is essential to achieving their best efforts. While this isn’t something a single teacher will be able to accomplish in a single year (hopefully parents and past teachers have already worked on it too), the teacher can build in this area. A common tactic is for the teacher to require students to maintain a portfolio of their work in the class. This has multiple benefits. First is that the students have to see their work. This has nothing to do with studying; it ensures that they don’t simply discard every returned paper automatically, as many students are wont to do. It then encourages students to take more pride in their work. Faced with a stack of sloppily done work, the student may decide that it is time to make the effort to write legibly, or to turn in papers that haven’t been crumbled and stuffed in a pocket. There is even the small benefit that it can help prepare students for their eventual insertion into the job market. Portfolio presentations provide experience that can be helpful when dealing with future employers. Sadly, this last, most minor point is the one that is usually promoted for portfolio use, and its other values overlooked.
The future seems like the ideal motivator for students. Or so it seems to an adult. As an adult, we have experience with the demands of the job market, college, and all of life’s other challenges. Most students live in ignorance of these facets of life. They are sheltered and unaware, and assume that things will remain as easy when they grow older. Adults, secure in their wisdom, will try to tell the students what awaits them if they do not learn to do their work, get grades to impress college recruiters, and make the most of themselves. Students hear the words, but rarely have any experience to relate them to, and the advice goes unheeded. Only those students who have seen their parents struggle will have learned this lesson well. Helping students to understand the demands of the future would have a tremendous impact on their choices in the present. Finding ways to do this is more difficult. Student volunteerism at soup kitchens and homeless shelters might be a good place to start.
Attitude is key in all things, school work included. To encourage a positive attitude in students towards work, the teacher must demonstrate the same. A student is unlikely to care about an assignment that the teacher presents as “another simple worksheet”, obviously not thrilled at the prospects of having to grade it. The assignment gains value if the teacher can present it as “a practice assignment that will really cement this in your brains” and makes a show of really caring about it. Students do learn from the teacher, and one of the first lessons is whether they’re supposed to care about the work.
As we have now seen, there is a real cause behind the coolness of not doing school work, but there are also countermeasures. I have not touched on discipline as a solution, because it really isn’t. Consequences and disciplinary measures can be a deterrent, but once a student decides that they are willing to accept them, it only promotes an ongoing conflict between teacher (or other authority figure) and student. Instead, we looked at positive actions that promote student growth in directions that will encourage them to want to do the work. School work may never be cool, but if students grow to value it, isn’t that even better?