Doing school the right way should be hard work. Not in the sense of being onerous, but it should be the kind of effort born from an immersive investment in a task; a whole-hearted engagement rather than something to get over and done with. It should be hard work from enjoyment rather than opposed to it.
One of the hallmarks of Elisabeth Irwin’s experiment was children doing purposeful work. Picture children in overalls, some with tools in hand, scattered around the classroom - up ladders, around a table, deep in conversation, arms akimbo. This vision of work - children persisting through difficult tasks under their own steam - was how progressive education showed respect for children. It is because progressive educators take children’s endeavors seriously that we call it work. Not imitation, not practice, but work in its own right. In turn, students given these authentic tasks worked hard, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. The context and method captured their intrinsic interest.
In physics, work doesn’t have the association with unpleasantness that it does in casual conversation. Work simply describes when force is applied to something and makes it move. By giving our students ownership of their learning (by creating opportunities for choice, seeking connection to real life, fostering debate), we try to instill in children a joyful relationship with effort that we hope lasts them their whole lives. By applying the force of their focus, engagement, and creativity, they move toward a heartier, more nuanced, more agile version of themselves. This is the hard work we aim for every day.
Teachers in each subject have ways of inspiring this transformative effort. The content and skills vary, but in every case teachers are initiating and guiding hard work. Commonalities in what we value, in what we want for our students as learners are what we call the three “learning habits”: self-motivation, discussion and listening, and classroom citizenship. These collectively describe someone who is deeply invested in their work. For someone who isn’t, they describe a pathway in. For someone who is, they are natural artifacts of joyful engagement with something just slightly out of view, just slightly beyond reach.
I hope you all enjoyed your glimpse on curriculum night “inside the function machine” of middle school, as Phil put it. Despite the burgeoning independence of middle schoolers, I encourage you to persist in asking your child about school, and using the digital tools at your disposal (Connect and JumpRope) to initiate conversations about their hard, good work.
Ana Fox Chaney
Middle School Principal