Hard Work. The X Factor.

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Images of students working hard  – via Google.

Throughout this year I’ve been struck repeatedly by the thought that, within the school,  my students have all that they need at their disposal to achieve enormous success.  They have well-motivated teachers with good subject knowledge,  an inclusive and aspirational ethos, superb facilities, a strong pastoral system and a broad and rich curriculum that offers bounteous opportunities for learning and the pursuit of personal passions.  In theory, all they need to do is turn up, follow the advice and guidance they’re given and work hard – and the world will be at their feet!  If only!

Of course we can do everything we do even better; we’ve got a long list of things we need to improve on.  But it seems to me that for a significant number of students, the ingredient with the greatest scope to increase and to have an impact is their capacity and willingness to work hard.  This is the X Factor. The not-so secret ingredient. I’d suggest that, if we could measure it, the range on the scale of students’ default-mode effort level is greater by far than any other factor – teacher quality, for example.  I’m thinking that, whilst we need to develop our pedagogical know-how, approaches to assessment and curriculum planning, the gains from these things would be dwarfed by the gains we could make if every student worked as hard as the most motivated and hard-working student in any situation.  This is the gap that needs to be narrowed.

In thinking this through, I’m aware that what teachers do and what students do are closely inter-related; I’m aware that family context is massive; I’m aware that socio-economic factors have a significant impact on students’ home learning environment and their aspirations; I know that we have a responsibility to support students in transcending the limitations of their circumstances.  I also know – from reading Dweck and about Dweck, that effort isn’t enough; it needs to be applied in the right direction on effective strategies that improve learning. It’s more complicated than simply ‘work harder’.

But with all that said, it’s a simple truth that the students who seem to work hard do well and those that don’t, don’t.  I’ve lost count of the number of times dealings with underachieving students have led me to think: Come on, this is down to you; take some responsibility, get your act together, pull your finger out! Do some work! Make an effort! I’ve also asked students on several occasions something like: ‘Why are you making it so hard for us to teach you? Don’t you want to succeed?’ They always say yes – but it’s like the couch potato dreaming of doing a 10K run without breaking sweat.  All in good time. When I’m ready.  Whilst this state of mind may not be entirely of their own making, we need to show them that they have the power and the responsibility to change it.  We can’t do the hard work for them.

Obviously, all of this largely comes down to motivation. We could all be super-fit if we were all motivated to exercise intensively enough and frequently enough. Knowing how to do effective exercise is important – but the motivation to exercise is the key factor.  The same applies to learning.  I’ve just re-read this superb blog series from Joe Kirby.  I recommend reading them all:

Why aren’t rewards working?

Motivation and mind-set anchoring

Motivation and Peer Pressure

Motivation and emotion

Motivation and Instruction

Each post ends with some concrete suggestions for teachers and leaders.  We all need to consider this area closely to see what mileage there is in taking more explicit steps in this direction.  Above all else, I’m convinced that we’ll make significant gains from the simple determination to insist that the students who need it the most, work harder on every task we give them.  This will require numerous mutually supporting motivational strategies and at HGS we’re hoping that our initiative to develop short-term learning goals in the form of Assignments will make an important contribution.  It’s probably also true that a higher degree of old-fashioned metaphorical whip cracking is what some of our students need to help them catch up with the rest.  I know schools that have made huge gains at a deep level, beyond the vagaries of the exam system, through systematic work on this front.  In the fitness metaphor, school systems and strategies need to create the conditions where skipping training to slob out on the couch is something that just doesn’t happen.


  1. What if students are working hard but the effort they are making is just getting them to the surface and they have no more energy left to “fly”? A bit like swimming against the tide. The school environment does not meet every learners needs all of the time and for some none of the time. These are not the compliant or those recognised as “able” (or whatever label you apply here), these are the ones that do not have the skills, attitudes, attributes or behaviours that enable them to make the most of the learning environment they are in. Just turning up can be an achievement in itself. Would you turn up if every day you are just tole to try harder. Just as Dweck points out with effort statements and as you mention it is about strategies. I think when you say work harder you mean work harder in the way you recognise in schools. There is an option to work smarter too.

    I have a solution, no really honestly I do, to your problem of motivating learners and helping them reach there potential. What is needed and what is missing from all the research and ideas about how to do this is a narrative to share with the learner. One that puts things into their language in a way they can recognise and deal with. I have not yet read the blogs you recommend but please consider this:

    Learners develop through their (also peers and family) exposure to learning a “learning map”. It is forged by emotions, observation and experience. This defines what they can and can not learn and determines values related to effort and the desire to succeed. It is used to navigate any new or existing learning situations and will trigger strategies that have been used before to good effect (from their perspective – not ours).

    Compliance and pleasing others can be a strategy used by learners and they can see benefits of delayed gratification and the values held by others in what they strive for. Survival is also a strategy. Learning to survive in an environment where there are no benefits to compliance and no others to please leads to strategies that do not support learning as we define it in schools. This group have a limited set of strategies at their disposal and often lack the language to express their needs. This is where Dweck’s question “What strategies have you tried? What will you try next?” falls down. They just don’t know.

    I argue that before we can ask learners to change or modify their learning map, to develop new strategies we need to show them they can master their learning environment. We need to develop in them a set of skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will empower them and allow them to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs. This is not just a theory, this is research plus experience and some trialing of ideas.

    If you are looking for the “X factor” I would suggest you explore “LQ” or Learning Intelligence from ace-d

    This article helps to put a little of what I am saying into context: http://wp.me/p2LphS-jX

    The best way to find out more is to contact me! kevin@ace-d.co.uk


  2. Hi Tom, probably no surprise that I’m very chilled about students who don’t work hard in school. I worked hard in school, in the hope it would do this: “For many of us at school, our parents’ expectations, encouragement, recognition, and reinforcement over extended periods of time helped us internalise our own intrinsic motivation” -quoted from “Why aren’t rewards working?” Instead of my own intrinsic motivations being internalised, they were lost in a sea of other peoples definitions of education and success. By the end of my high-flying education I was employable, but I’d no idea what on this earth I wanted to do. This is scary! Those students who didn’t buy the ‘work hard at school = success’ line had more time than me to know themselves…. though, of course, by not being successful in the conventional way like I was, their confidence was often too low to go for what they really wanted to do when school was done. Catch 22 for many students?


  3. It’s the crux of the matter for me Tom . It’s linked to a number of factors that range from parental support to teachers that go the extra mile . I don’t buy Leah’s point at all with the greatest respect . I have net a number of former pupils who bitterly regret not working hard enough at school . It’s probably more important than ever .


    • Oh Kevin, me too! My brother is an example I saw close up, but there are many others who’ve found what they want to do after school, and say to me in despair or frustration; “Why didn’t I try harder when it would have been easier to learn this?” I say to them what I said to my brother; regret means you’re wiser now than you were when you did or didn’t do the thing you regret, it’s a hard feeling, but it signifies intellectual development over a life time. What a shame to be the person who doesn’t evolve enough to experience any regret? My issue is that our cultural fear of ‘bad feelings’ means that the line; “do this now in order to not regret it in the future” has become an OK justification for full-time directing students mental energy over a 10+ years of their lives. I’m just saying we can do better and, if we can’t? I’d like us to not stress about it. Treating student’s education like an emergency could be one of the most damaging things we’re doing for personal development. P.S. I’m not selling anything, these are just my considered views on these topics and I could be wrong – I’ve been wrong before – but I’m thoroughly enjoying and am fascinated by these conversations.


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