The (Newly Rediscovered) Importance of Work Habits: Perseverance, Responsibility, Collaboration

Evaluation of students at the elementary and middle school levels has changed in the past decade. My school evaluates students based on content mastered, but in addition – the norm these days – we place a heavy emphasis on the importance of work habits and we report on mastery of these habits alongside mastery of content.

Recent books support the notion that without good work habits school success will be illusory. Two of these books are How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Peter Tough and The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Most teachers I know have read and agreed with one or another, if not both, of these books. Most people working in schools these days understand that we need to focus on helping students develop the habits it takes to do well.

Today I was looking at a rubric created by a wonderful group of teachers. The rubric was designed with the goal of measuring work habits. The key elements of the rubric were Perseverance, Responsibility, and Collaboration. Something felt odd to me as I read through the descriptors, but I couldn’t figure out at first what that was.  Eventually I realized that what felt odd was how familiar these descriptors sounded: be prepared for class; communicate in a respectful way; follow routines; don’t give up when the work is hard. Of course! Haven’t these been the work habits students have always needed for school (and life)? How unusual that we feel the need to spell these out so carefully for students.

In schools these days we need to teach and evaluate these habits because most students have not yet developed them.  Be prepared; communicate in a respectful way; follow routines; don’t give up when the work is hard. These are the behaviors families have taught their children since the world began. Undoubtedly back in the days of Pharaoh in Egypt, as well as in Inuit groups a century ago, children learned these behaviors from their elders. When did this end? Should these really be behaviors we need to place such a big emphasis on teaching in school? Is the fact that we need to do this a big part of the explanation for why our schools seem to be on the decline?

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I miss this aspect of times past when these behaviors used to be taught at home, at places of worship, and elsewhere in the community. The assumption was that students would know the importance of these habits and only need little reminders in school now and again: be prepared for class; communicate in a respectful way; follow routines; don’t give up when the work is hard.

Nowadays it is a minority of students in my area who have developed these habits by school age. The knee-jerk assumption is that it is mainly children from dysfunctional homes who are weak in these habits but experience tells me otherwise. Most students are weak in these habits. They simply do not feel the need to work hard. They think a minor effort should yield success. They are shocked if studying for half an hour does not produce mastery.

Students in Singapore, China, Poland, and Finland know they need to work hard to succeed. Their culture tells them that. Necessity tells them that. All of these countries have experienced serious economic trouble and education has helped them pull out of it. Our nation is complacent. We have become used to being the world’s superpower. We haven’t woken yet to the realization that we need to pull ourselves together to maintain our position in the world. Hopefully we won’t have to experience a major depression to be jolted awake.

The necessity of teaching work habits in school means there is less time for tackling academic substance. Meanwhile many other nations do not have this hurdle to jump.  If we want to compete at the international level we need to start teaching these habits earlier than we now do. Universal pre-kindergarten would help. Families taking this on again would help. The government showing the importance of education by funding schools and supporting teachers would help. By the time students need to learn languages, and biology, and how to write an essay they really should already know how to show up on time with the right tools, persevere when the going gets rough, and treat their classmates and teachers with respect. Schools can help teach these habits, but they should not be solely responsible.


Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.