The Importance of Hard Work
This summer, I had the opportunity to do some backpacking in the Alps. Not surprisingly, making my way across rocky alpine terrain led to some new thoughts on education.
I read a lot of education stories these days that can feel gimmicky. The stories often share new teaching and learning strategies. Sometimes they are framed as shortcuts to help you learn faster or be a more effective teacher. Some of my students have told me about working smarter, not harder. I don’t reject the importance of good strategies and the value of advice and recommendations in the learning process. However, I think that sometimes these ideas can create confusion about the importance of hard work in learning. Let me connect this idea to my hiking.
At one point in my journey, I crossed a narrow glacier. The translucent ice in all directions was mesmerizing. I felt so lucky to be surrounded by such natural beauty. I was almost thwarted from the crossing the glacier by a wide river gulley of meltwater. Jumping across felt too risky since falling in would probably be an irrecoverable misstep. Luckily I found a large bolder across the gulley that provided safe passage. When I finally reached the far side of the glacier, there was a steep mountain ridge blocking my way West. The marked path would take me many kilometers North to a labeled mountain pass out of view. It seemed inefficient to go so far North when the desired trail was due West right over the ridge in front of me. Looking up the slope, I wondered if I could cross the ridge closer to my current location. Up at the top of the ridge, I could see what appeared to be a navigable pass. It is hard to actually tell until you get up there, so I headed uphill.
The grade was reasonable for a few hundred meters but soon became quite steep. The surroundings were spectacular, and pushing my body physically felt good, so I continued. I reached a rocky ascent that required a more sophisticated way of finding. I found several gullies where I could pull myself up without risking dangerous exposure. After climbing for about 20 minutes, I came to a vertical wall that I could not climb safely without a rope. I thought about it for a while, looking for other routes around me but eventually decided it was time to turn back. It was a challenging decision because I had to drop down quite a stretch of steep technical terrain to the base of the rocky ascent. Once I got down, I crossed laterally until I found a less steep gully that I could ascend without facing treacherous cliffs. Eventually, I found my way to the top of the unmarked col. I even continued along the ridge a little way to a higher point with a better view. The view from the top over the Glacier and surrounding range blew me away. I marveled at how I had found this wonderful, seemingly secret place through some effort and a little know-how. As I carefully descended the opposite slope of the ridge, I reflected on the experience.
This was certainly a story about learning. I would not have had the confidence to do this kind of adventure without much experience hiking in alpine terrain. It could have been quite frustrating to backtrack on the cliffs after working so hard to ascend them. In fact, I am glad that I tracked my position with my GPS as I ascended because it was tricky figuring out where to descend and some of the alternative routes were more exposed than would feel safe. But surprisingly, I did not find it frustrating. I found it to be an adventure. It was part of my journey to discover a route over the ridge. And the way that I got over the ridge was a combination of experience, knowing what to look for, but most importantly, it was hard work. It was hard physical work pushing my body up that steep slope. It was hard mental work to look for routes, trust my instincts, stay calm, and make key decisions. It was also hard work that got me all the experience that led me to that point. It would have been okay if I had to descend all the way back to the valley and go around along the marked trail and col. Maybe an earlier version of myself would have done precisely that. And in the process of doing all that hard work, that former self would have become a bit more experienced and better ready to tackle the next challenge. That is the role of hard work in learning. So I write all this to share a story about route finding and adventure in the mountains. But more importantly, it shows that learning is sometimes just plain hard work. There is no other component that has been more important to my progress as a hiker and navigator. And it is a love and appreciation of hard work that, for me, defines the learning journey. So, sure, there are tricks out there, and there are some rules of thumb. But most of them are gained and appreciated through hard work. And very little is learned without the accompaniment of hard work along the way.
So when my students talk about working smarter, I am confused. It is hard work that leads to smarter working, and without hard work, all that advice and guidance is of limited value. I want to think more about the motivation to do hard work and where it comes from. Why do I seek out challenges and adversity in the mountains? I don’t think it insignificant that I find such joy on these hikes. And I don’t think I would enjoy them as much if they were not so much hard work.
So as a new school year opens, I plan to think more about hard work in my classroom. How do I celebrate hard work in my students? How do I support them in finding joy in hard work? How do I know when to take a break from the hard work? Where is there room for my students to share their learning stories as I do through writing?