School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers: 5 Anti-Work Skills Taught In School.
Students are offered the fundamental skills and knowledge necessary for work, but the structure and underlying ethos of the education system also ‘teaches’ them how to be terrible employees.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” — A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, 1983
“During my time in school, I have developed many skills that teachers did not intentionally want me to learn, but in a way forced me to because of the way they teach and implement the school rules. These are basically ways to cheat the system discreetly. Things such as writing a whole essay not knowing what I am really talking about and not paying attention in class but acting like I am.” — High School Junior, 2016
Here’s a few things I did when I was a student:
- Plowed through weeks and months of class by daydreaming, doodling, playing games, reading unrelated stuff, and otherwise generally dinking around.
- Talked my way out of deadlines, extending them, sometimes indefinitely.
- Copied homework, answers, and projects to receive credit for work I didn’t do.
- Ignored everything until the night before the exam and pulled all nighters to finish essays.
- Lied to teachers about my mental state, or home state, or some kind of state, in order to avoid consequences and work.
- Learned to nod when applicable, look ahead for the answer to the question that was coming my way, write down responses after they had been given out by others, and generally DO as little actual work as absolutely necessary to still pass the class.
By the end of high school I was really, really good at a lot of this. I could read a teacher’s sympathy or mood or general demeanor like a politician. I had a solid, workable bank of excuses and avoidance techniques. I could lie so convincingly that I believed my own lies. I eagerly joined group projects because I knew another student, one more interested in higher grades than I, would do most of the work for which I would receive credit. I mostly mastered the art of determining the minimum work needed to escape scrutiny and still get a passing grade. (On occasion I misjudged.) I even developed a solid folder of techniques for making it appear that I’d done far more work than I actually performed.
I also developed a genuine, heartfelt disdain for work itself, for anything that smacked of repetitive deliberate effort or lacked clear, engaging purpose.
Ironically, I ended up on the other side of the desk, teaching students like myself. But it took a long, long time to get there, and a lot of jobs to unlearn much of what I’d perfected as a student.
The year I graduated high school, 1983, President Reagan’s Education Commission released its explosive A Nation at Risk. The report laid bare a dire situation, in which the majority of American students were not being prepared for the demands of the modern workforce. What was needed, the report argued, with an urgency reserved for the catastrophic, was an aggressive and foundational focus on workplace skills. The nation never really looked back from that moment, embarking on a series of ambitious reforms almost exclusively aimed at preparing students for work and college. Recent efforts — the adoption of Common Core Standards, in particular — are just the latest iteration of our demand for ‘Work and College Preparedness’.
I was one of those students the report warned about. But I was actually quite prepared for the kind of work that an 18 year old high school graduate ought to be able to perform. I could read, knew math, wrote and typed. I could follow directions and even be trained reasonably well for just about anything that didn’t require specialized knowledge. But I was, and remained for a long time, a terrible worker. I took all those skills I had practiced so faithfully in high school and put them to good use for years in the workplace.
What was not considered when A Nation at Risk was commissioned, and really hasn’t been addressed much at all, is the way that poor workers are not neglected by their education, they are actually created by it. That is to say, even if one believes that American workers are not being taught the essential knowledge for career and college success, they are often ‘learning’ the skills of poor workers.
Even a casual glance at the curriculum of most schools across the country attests that students are not ill-served by either the quantity or quality of their curriculum. High School can be intense. In addition to the college-based AP classes that most American students now have available, the implementation of rigorous standards across every curriculum — designed to avoid the costly (literally) stigma of poor performance on statewide standardized exams — has ensured that American high schools are asking a lot more of their students than they did when A Nation at Risk was released. I can assure you, as a veteran high school teacher, students are working a lot harder on a lot more material than we did in the ’80s. Still, judging by the hysteria from business groups and universities, American students are even LESS prepared now than they were 30 years ago, which merely increases the focus on work and college skills.
But while the content of each class is increasingly rigorous and skill-based, little of the structure, assessment, motivation, and purpose of school has changed. It’s still a bureaucracy. It still treats students less like actual people and more like machines. It still depersonalizes content and separates purpose from skill. It still idolizes assessment, ignores creativity, shatters social connections, emphasizes obedience, and silences energy.
In many ways, the relentless focus on workplace skills and behavior has actually reinforced many of the cultural traditions of school that encourage the development of anti-work skills. Since students have no choice but to go to school and endure the various indignities forced upon them, they spend a great deal of their time and energy working around those processes — in essence, working around the academic and behavioral demands of school. They are learning, to be sure. They are learning A LOT.
Students are getting a kind of anti-education about work. Like any other human action, this is a skill learned through the usual ways — repetition, variety, increasing complexity and sophistication, evaluation, and reward. It’s a skill set learned through confronting obstacles in the environment and figuring out methods and techniques for conquering them. Since in many ways the environment of work is little different from the environment of school, those skills are put to good use once students graduate.
“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” — A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, 1983
A few years ago, when I taught at a high-performance college preparatory high school, I had my incredibly intelligent and ambitious students (most of the class went on to top universities — over a quarter were accepted to Ivies) write about some of the anti-work skills they picked up over the years. The quotes here are direct from those students (with a little editing for grammar).
“Throughout my school career I have acquired a certain set of skills not directly correlated to academics. These skills are tangent to what we learn in class. I have learned how to fake my knowledge, exaggerate my bullshit, manipulate my sympathy, and waste my time. School has taught me how to find the easy way out. I make use of other people’s knowledge and effort. I don’t do my work until the very last minute, and I manipulate my teachers into believing that I genuinely care and am learning when in actuality I have no clue what is going on.” — High School Senior, 2015
Humans are learning creatures. We learn, grow, and change as a natural process of moving through the world and time. Learning is humanity’s most powerful attribute, whether guided or not. Learning is a response to conditions, a way of understanding the environment and adapting to circumstance. However, the act of learning, the process, is rarely rosy, and often simply unpleasant. The circumstances of school are frequently not a student’s choice, and the experiences they undergo can be uncomfortable. Thus, students quickly learn a variety of skills to avoid the painful work of school.
The truth is that school itself creates bad workers. And it does so in a number of ways.
Five Anti-Work Skills Students Learn:
1. How to avoid work
“School has also taught us problem solving skills. We see school as an obstacle and use the abilities we have acquired avoiding school to overcome it.” — High School Junior, 2015
When in school most of us figured out ways to avoid the work. The easiest, most common, practice was simply to manipulate a teacher, usually the inattentive one who didn’t check the homework, or sat at his desk during class while you, in theory, were completing some bullshit assignment or project. After a while, one develops a preternatural sense for the boss’s attentiveness.
But there are other skills and practices of the high school work avoider. We learn to break down the components of an exam to learn the minimum essentials, to fake ‘productive’ activity when the teacher is around, to hide our diversions behind the appearance of work. We learn how to gauge the value of an assignment to the edge of its value, in order to do the least amount of actual labor.
School has taught us how to analyze the situation presented to you and finding the easiest way around it. From writing the least amount possible for an essay to still get a decent grade to writing the correct answer on a test then putting random bullshit that “shows your work”. We are forced to do so much in our school career that we have made it part of our lives to find loopholes in life. I blame school for pushing us so hard that we just give up on trying and just finding the easiest way to get it done. — High School Senior, 2014
Along with engaging in the least amount of labor, students also learn to actually fake labor altogether.
2. How to fake knowledge and skill
Avoiding work is one skill, faking it altogether something else entirely. Outright cheating is the ultimate in faked knowledge, but school abets, even encourages, far more subtle forms of faked knowledge. The nature of tests alone foster a faking behavior. When one doesn’t knows the material completely, or not at all, that middle ground often forces an attempt at faking more knowledge than one has. There’s a genuine victory in getting a better grade than one knows they deserve (that ‘reward’ element of learning), but the final result isn’t exactly knowledge. Nodding while the teacher is lecturing, copying the work of others for credit (a time-honored tradition), padding essays with material from writers better or more knowledgeable than yourself, slapping copied paragraphs onto posters, Youtubing assignments, recycling old work. The methods are limitless and evolving.
“Although we are supposed to be taught skills like analysis and problem solving, we actually come away with other skills that we aren’t necessarily supposed to be taught; for example, bullshiting. When we’re supposed to be writing an essay or answering a question we’re supposed to do research and learn all these things about the topic. However, that is not what actually happens. Instead we do just enough research that we know the basic background information on the topic and then from there we bullshit the rest. We turn a couple sentence of information into paragraphs. We use this for almost every class. Instead of learning information, we learn how to do the least amount of work required to get the grade we want by bullshitting.” — High School Junior, 2015
To a large degree, students MUST master the art of pretend learning. A student cannot move forward in school without demonstrating some kind of evidence that they have learned something. Usually, this takes the form of a test, but increasingly assessment is through projects, group work, presentations, and writing. But students are not really expected to simply muddle through it all — they must demonstrate Mastery. Which is pretty much impossible for all but the most dedicated student.
School has taught me how to recycle so that I don’t actually have to do new projects or essays. I just slightly modify my old work and turn it. I have done 3 projects on Teddy Roosevelt during high school, and they have all been basically the same. In U.S. history I was assigned to do a timeline of a President, in English it was a project about an influential historical character, and for Psychology it was analyzing a famous leader. In three different classes I was able to use the same information in order to complete the assignments, without doing any of the research that these projects would have normally required. — High School Junior, 2014
What’s notable about these skills is that they occur in just about every class. Unlike a specific subject, isolated and narrow, this lesson is repeated every day several times.
One current educational buzzword is ‘lifelong learner’. You see this in school mission statements across the globe. It’s an interesting notion, that lifelong learning is a skill itself, an attitude, a value. But humans are lifelong learners whether they want to be or not. The real question should be: What are they learning?
3. How to endure the clock
As a teacher, one learns a lot about managing time in a classroom. Lessons are planned to an exacting schedule, a kind of race, with a quick leap into action at the start, well-defined pauses, transitions, and breaks (if any), and — when the lesson is run according to the latest pedagogy — some kind of stretching exercise to wrap it all up. Students learn a lot too. If you don’t really want to be there, or do the work, or the whole point has no genuine purpose, then the time of school — as all of us know intimately from our own schooldays — is a form of torture. One key lesson of school is time-management, but of the endurance kind. Students learn to manage those blocks of time to get through the moment without having to engage in any way at all.
School has taught us how to use a marginal cost/marginal benefit analysis for both homework and skipping class. I have learned exactly how much I need to study to be able to pass with grades that my parents wouldn’t be necessarily happy with but they wouldn’t be mad either. For skipping class, I know which teachers are most likely to mark me present when I am absent and how many classes to skip in a period of time. — High School Junior, 2015
In school, after awhile you learn to give up. You learn to endure. You learn to push through until the weekend, or the afternoon, or hour. You learn to look at that clock and think not ‘I only have this much time do do this thing I want to do’ but ‘I only have to wait this much time and it will be over.’
This is not patience students have learned. Not the kind of patience that, say, they need at the doctor’s office or in a traffic jam. (Though perhaps we’ve been so well trained that we endure such things out of experience and learning rather than sense.) It’s more a way of illicitly using time allotted for a different purpose. In work, this skill can be profoundly expensive to the employer, since to some degree the employer is essentially purchasing time from the employee for a profitable purpose.
Muscle memory is difficult to overcome. Repeat something enough times and — good or bad , right or wrong — the habit grows. These are workplace skills. Something doesn’t have to be deliberately intended to be taught. The formula is simple. Have a task. Provide a structure. Produce a result and reward or punishment. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Seven minutes is enough time to buy a cookie, fill up a water bottle, go to the bathroom, and climb three flights of stairs. That is what I learned in high school. I learned that every second in a day can be used. Somehow, someway, teachers manage to fill up every ounce of a student’s day with commands and tasks. Lesson plans are planned to the tittle. Yes, that is tittle, the dot on top of the i. To be idle is to sin. I have developed the ability to think about nothing. It is simple really. You fixate on a point on the wall, and you concentrate on an inanimate object. Your brain is so exhausted from the constant strain during the day that 5 minutes of emptiness is pure bliss. It calms me down, and allows me to push forward. 300 seconds of utterly, utilitarian waste. I was taught not to waste, but it is the waste that rescues me. — High School Junior, 2015
The notion that students are learning things other than that specifically defined in the curriculum and lesson plan is not new. A fair amount of recent research has been spent on ‘Soft Skills’ in Education — enough that these skills have their own anagram — SEL: Social and Emotional Learning skills. Of those, the most current is ‘grit’ — some combination of perseverance and character that drives student success.
But unless it’s bullying or some other social skill, we in the education field have very much neglected the complex reality of school’s environment. We know students do these things; after all, we were students once, and we did them. What we forget is the way these kinds of behaviors — magnified, repeated, institutionalized — become an actual part of one’s education, an actual skill set.
Every facet of school’s structure opens doors to new opportunities for learning. Where else do we learn these things if not in school? Chief among this skill set is the ability to maximize credit for minimal effort. One of the best ways to do this is to receive credit for work one doesn’t do.
4. How to get credit for work you didn’t do
Group projects have a lesson behind them. What was supposed to be a way in which we learned to work together, has quickly become the way in which we learn how to manipulate someone else into doing all the work, while you sit back and wait for that A. Say there are four people in a group doing a project. One or two of them are actually bound to do work; the other two sit back and wait for the A. I have been on both sides of those groups, and to be honest, it is more rewarding being the person not doing any work and getting an A. So this skill will probably be staying with me in life. — High School Junior, 2015
But we also still get caught. So we learn how to escape.
5. How to properly create excuses
At the end of many actions comes the question: Why? We catch students in these acts — cheating, letting others do their work, copying homework, wasting time and avoiding effort — we catch them and ask ‘why?’ The best work avoiders arrive with the answers already prepared, as part of the process. The worst make it up on the spot. Both are steadily teaching themselves the art of the excuse.
From worksheets to essays that I haven’t done, I come up with elaborate excuses. Of course you need to earn your teacher’s trust and charm them into thinking that you are a good student and that this is a “one time thing” and “will never happen again.” It’s also a perk being a school athlete: “Late practice, I didn’t have time.” — High School Junior, 2015
School has shown me how to manipulate teacher’s feelings or perceptions in my favor. You have to sell the idea that you’re a mess and that your life is crumbling and tearing at the seams. — High School Senior, 2014
Also by showing confidence in your actions, you can trick teachers into believing that you did something when you didn’t. Look the teacher straight in the eye and say,“I know for a fact I turned in this assignment to you.” Also throw in a few “I worked so hard on this assignment miss, I hope you find it,” or “I stayed up all night making sure it was perfect.” It works. — High School Junior, 2016
My problem solving skills have increased dramatically, to help me think of excuses for EVERYTHING. My mom tends to think these “skills” of manipulation and deception are a bad thing however, I like to believe it is a good thing. As Bill Gates said, “I choose a lazy person to do the hardest job. Because a lazy person will find a easy way to do it.” — High School Senior, 2015
America’s graduating students are not stupid. They are not ignorant. They are, by and large, smarter than the generations before them. But they may well be terrible workers and terrible employees, and that is, indeed, a fault of school.
These skills, and no doubt many others, really have one single cause, and that is the devaluing of work altogether. Students teach themselves work avoidance skills when the work simply does not matter. You finish a class and get a poor grade, the only lesson there is to play the game a bit better. We are taught in school that work is fundamentally pointless and boring, that it is a labor forced upon us by people who seem not to have our interests at heart, that the basic nature of labor is meaningless completion of tasks.
A lousy teacher may not teach a skill set, and a dysfunctional system many not effectively transfer the right knowledge, but learning IS taking place. Learning isn’t isolated to a classroom and teacher. Learning is consistent, continual, evolving.
School taught us how to manipulate teachers into thinking that we did an assignment when they know and we know that we didn’t. There are numerous occasions where a teacher has shown up to a class not having a lesson plan and has either given the students a study block or raging at the students because it was there fault that the teacher had no desire to do his/her homework. From this the student and the teacher use each other to not do work that they don’t want to do, because the teacher has been through school before and they might manipulate us more than we think that we manipulate them. Because if the teacher can manipulate the students without them even knowing, and the students believe that the teacher is doing a good job, then the teacher has made their job the easiest job on the planet. So, technically the teacher is getting paid to say or do whatever they want to the student. — High School Senior, 2015
We’re told often in class that we know virtually nothing about the real world. But I would disagree, I think that we’re being taught a great deal about the real world and our role in it. My four years at High School have taught me that we’re not going to amount anything more than a piece of paper that reads transcript in big bold and even italicized letters. This is going to last until you’re through with graduate school and join the working force. At that point, the piece of paper no longer reads transcript in big bold and even italicized letters. It reads salary in even bigger and bolder letters because after your schooling, you will be nothing more than the number of zeros on that piece of paper. We do know something about the real world. — High School Senior, 2015