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Inscribed upon my wrist: Emphasizing effort to empower learning

5 min read


I wear an identification tag on my wrist whenever I run. Should I meet physical misfortune while pounding the pavement, whoever finds me will have at least a few critical details at hand.

When I ordered this thick rubber band with its aluminum data tag, I had one line I could customize. My choice of “mantra” to inscribe: Give the effort. My wife jokes that it’s a not-very-subtle suggestion for the EMTs who arrive on the scene. That wasn’t my intent (although maybe it’s not a bad consequence).

The message is intended to be from me to me. Every time I slip that tag onto my wrist, I am reminded to put forth the effort that will equip me to achieve my goals.

My wrist one-liner is a good mantra for our schools: Give the effort. Perhaps we should have it inscribed on student desks or chiseled into classroom walls. Why? Because more than anything else, effort influences learning, and authentic learning involves effort. (In fact, students who rarely struggle are probably learning little!)

Several studies suggest a strong correlation between effort (or perseverance or grit or willpower) and achievement — not just academic success but improved life quality beyond graduation day. If this aspect of “character” is so vital, how can we give it more intentional emphasis in education?

1. Make stories about struggle and eventual success centerpieces of class discussions. A strong example trumps a “what if” scenario every time. Rather than posing a question to students, ”What if you tried to solve this problem and failed on your first try?”sprinkle tales of struggle and eventual success throughout the day. If you teach science, share stories of scientists who worked for months or years before discovering a breakthrough. If you teach history, avoid oversimplification and emphasize the struggles behind historical successes (e.g., Edison didn’t instantly “invent the lightbulb”; he worked for years to improve existing designs, trying “a thousand” possibilities before finding the right combination of materials). If you teach math, share stories of mathematicians who wrestled with equations before finding a new formula. If you coach baseball, make sure students know that Babe Ruth struck out more than 1300 times on his way to hitting more than 700 home-runs. When you read to students, select stories featuring protagonists who overcome multiple challenges to achieve a goal. Regularly and intentionally weave stories like these into your conversations with students. They are more than inspirational; they are instructive reference points.

2. Direct attention to effort-result relationships. Carol Dweck’s well-known research found that teachers whose comments emphasized effort-result relationships had students learning up to 50% more than students of teachers who did not direct attention to effort-result relationships. A teacher emphasizing effort-result relationships may say, “Wow, you worked hard on this and look at the results!” rather than saying, “Wow, you are really good at math!” This subtle difference possesses power because it conveys a) that students can get better (or “smarter”) at something through effort, and b) that effort, not IQ or gender or socioeconomic status, etc., is what empowers learning and success.

3. Separate strategy from individual worth. It amazes me how many adults who accomplish something significant reveal in interviews that a teacher in their past questioned their abilities to be successful, often at anything, but frequently in the field where these individuals find success. (The latest example was one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine.) Dr. Robert Brooks suggests that classrooms should be places that welcome failure as a gateway to learning. One way we can do this is through our response to students’ errors. Rather than saying unhelpful things like “Try harder” or “Put your thinking cap on,” we can redirect students’ focus and effort. Brooks’ example: “This strategy you’re using doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s figure out why and how we can change the strategy so that you are successful.” A response like this a) directs attention to the strategy rather than the student (i.e., fixing the strategy rather than the student), b) makes the teacher a partner in analyzing the error and in determining how to change the strategy, and c) communicates the teacher’s belief that the student can be successful. Such a response invites additional effort rather than withdrawal based on frustration or feelings of incompetence.

When we experience failure, our brains are in a state in which neuronal connections can be rewired, but only if we attend to our errors. When students resist analyzing mistakes and figuring out better strategies, they slam shut a window of optimal learning opportunity. The way we respond to student error can invite the opening of this window. In contrast, a less effective response can eliminate any space between pane and sill.

Effort is applied power that possesses immense power. It empowers learning, which is a significant benefit while in school. However, the ability and determination to “self-teach” is a life-long skill that enables success in the home, marketplace and any field of personal interest. Additionally, the ability to work at something until success is achieved is itself a profitable character trait.

Give the effort. Perhaps we should all strive to make this part of our identification. And that of our students.

Kevin D. Washburn is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.