How to Give Kids a Work Ethic

by Rick on April 4, 2014

I read in the paper, “Kids these days need to be taught a work ethic.”

As I walk down the hallway of a school, the words still rattle in my head. I see a boy and girl on the floor outside a third-grade classroom taking pennies out of a half-full shoebox and making hash marks on a sheet of paper.

I squat down next to them and say, “How many pennies do you have?”
With a sigh the girl says, “This many,” pointing to what looks like about 20 groups of five. Their lack of enthusiasm for their task makes me go on about my business. As I move down the hallway possible educational objectives come to my head. Place value? Double-digit data? Or are they are being punished?

Is counting money meaningful work? Could be. But if this were educational, why aren’t all the children doing it?

DSC00170A sixth grade teacher I know starts off the year with, “How much is a million?” and after a few reactions says, “Well, this year we are going to find out.”

They start by bringing pennies from home. Sitting at tables in groups of four, they count pennies, record their data, and report to a student at the blackboard, who writes their multi-digit numbers in a column. The class calculates how many pennies they have collected on the first day.

“Great. We are well on our way,” says the teacher. “Day one. We collected 2,671 pennies.” Together, they consider many questions:
“How many pennies does the average family have?”
“Do you think this would be true for the whole school?”
“How can we get to a million?”
“How could we reach the whole city?”
“How long might it take?”
One student says, “Let’s find out.”

They form committees and get to work on a project to raise 1,000,000 pennies for a homeless shelter in the neighborhood of the school. Their work leads to posters, bar graphs, public announcements, ads and articles in the school newsletter, a trip to city hall, interviews with a local reporter, and essays. They work on this project for four months with no loss of enthusiasm.

Once the students are launched, their project takes very little “class time.” The students talk about it and work on it in the interstices of their “work day.”

Who is learning a work ethic? How? Who is not? Why?

I leave to your imagination how many objectives of the 6th grade math curriculum can be addressed in the course of raising a million pennies. And yet, interviewing the teacher reveals that her focus is not so much on the math curriculum, but on giving kids meaningful work. Her goals are critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity and communication.

“My class is very diverse,” she says. “I have students from all racial and cultural backgrounds. I have kids with single moms who are struggling and those who are quite affluent. Their abilities range from the 25th to the 99th percentile, and I need to challenge them at their unique levels of competence. One thing I always have going for me is that kids love to work together toward meaningful goals. All I have to do is pick a topic where they see a benefit beyond themselves, and I am in business.”

On any given day I can find an American adult who will say, “We have to teach kids a work ethic.” If that is your thought, you will fail. Children are born with a passion to work. You can feed it or kill it, but you can’t give children a work ethic.

The first words my three-year-old grandson spoke to me were, “I like to work.” (He was a late speaker.) We were in the back yard. I gave him the rake. 15 minutes later he didn’t want to give it back to me.

Of course, children like to work. We see their joy and call it play. Homo sapiens never would have made it this far if people hadn’t evolved an innate passion to learn, work and be valuable. By age 3 they have been researching how to be useful for over 27,000 hours. By age five they are ready for real work. If they resist the work the teachers dish out, it’s probably because it’s unworthy.

Give kids a work ethic? Give them work worthy of them.

Footnote: The sixth grade only collected 547,561 pennies that year. Failure is as useful as success.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Pamela Swallow April 5, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Great! You’ll need to add “Work” or “Work Ethic” to your list on the right — the description of how the 6th grade teacher generated enthusiasm was inspiring! Her method could work with many different age groups and could bring much satisfaction to the students, particularly if the end result produced something the students could feel really good about.

Rick April 5, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Thank you for the suggestion. Done.
And, indeed, this is the approach I envision for all students. Put them to work!!! They can do so much. Let them show us and they will learn five times more than if they are only expected to “cover the curriculum.”

Gary Gruber April 6, 2014 at 3:41 am

Halfway to a laudable goal is a lot better than not having a high goal. My first question was how much money is a million pennies? Since a penny is 1/100th of a dollar it would be $10,000 and $5476 given by children to a homeless shelter is really good work. Congratulations to them for a job well done and not just the arithmetic but figuring out how to get it done.

Rick April 6, 2014 at 7:55 am

Right, Gary. I see you are good at mathematics, too.

Todd April 6, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Rick, I think the example you gave was a brilliant way to get kids engaged in learning and work and to help them see the larger picture of how their work contributes to a overarching goal. But will this give them a work ethic per se? Will they be later self motivated to complete small menial tasks?

Rick April 6, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Good question, Todd. The point is that internally motivated work yields positive feedback to the person who is doing it. The more our work serves a purpose we can get behind, the more we will be inclined to do it more. Small menial tasks are fine if they serve a purpose. A work “ethic” is not likely to get people to do such tasks well or continue to do them, unless given extrinsic rewards.

Deirdre Fennessy April 7, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Maria Montessori observed that children engaged in meaningful, purposeful activities were the happiest. She called it normalization, a difficult word for some to swallow, nevertheless, the description of a child
happily engrossed in an activity where she is learning something that interests her. In our Montessori schools, we see it in our classrooms after a month or two each fall. The children are able to find meaningful work each day on their own and go about it with joy and rigor. She called them scientists, they are so eager and passionate about their work.

Rick April 7, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Yes, Deirdre! What Maria Montessori discovered in her years of research with children is spot on. Children are whole human beings, scientists who love to do meaningful work.

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