Work Hard

July 23, 2019

A few years ago, the trustees of a historic school located on a working ranch in Arizona asked me to join one of their meetings. I asked the board a simple question: What do students learn here? One of the non-typical answers from a passionate trustee was “Our students learn how to work hard!” During a meeting break, I asked the trustee to explain how the school taught students to work hard. He beamed and said, “Follow me and I’ll show you.” We walked outside to an irrigation ditch. Pointing to the ditch, the trustee explained, “In 1972, I was forced to dig this ditch by hand with two of my classmates. We dug for several days. I learned how to work hard and this is what all schools need kids to do!” I smiled and said, “Technology allows us to do more work. Why didn’t you use a tractor? I think we need to update your definition of working hard as I believe you are confusing it with hard work.” He didn’t smile back.

Alpha is defined by three simple promises: love school, learn 2x faster, learn life skills. While the promises are straight forward, the underlying truth is that the entire organization is held to lofty expectations.

The prerequisite to the second goal, learning 2x faster than a traditional classroom, is work hard. The tool that delivers 2x faster learning is the adaptive application; however, like a hammer, students need to use it with force. They must work hard in the adaptive apps to achieve their goals. Working hard requires focus, a defined objective, a clear path to success and giant expectations.

At Alpha, teaching students to work hard begins with a straightforward goal: pick a subject and work for 10 minutes. No distractions — complete focus on one concept for 10 minutes. This goal requires focus has a defined objective (10 minutes of work) and a degree of self-agency (student picks the subject, student is working independently, nobody is providing information or directly “teaching” the student). After 10 minutes, we ask the simple question: “How did you do?” After a simple self-assessment, we do the task again.

Most of the early answers lack objectivity; however, following repetition, the answers contain more data. Students start to say, “I got 90% correct this time,” or “I got stuck on three questions,” and “I completed more problems than ever before.” Note: Alpha guides are not telling kids to work hard, focus or listen. Further, success hinges on the student’s self-agency. Once they realize for themselves what they can do in 10 minutes of focused work, we ask the next question: “How much could you get done in 15 minutes?”

In a short amount of time, students understand what they can accomplish in 10, 15, 20 and 25 minutes. They self-regulate, stating things like, “I didn’t work as hard as I could have,” while using actual data to explain their efforts. So, they will cite the amount of time they spent on a problem or the amount of time they spent working versus talking to a friend. Again, there is no need for adult intervention because the student understands the objective value: working to capacity as well as working hard.

In addition to students learning how to work hard as well as the value of work, they learn that working hard doesn’t mean working for long amounts of time or more work. They learn that a tremendous amount can be accomplished in 25 minutes of focused time or deep work. As a result, the Alpha student’s approach to every task is defined using measurement of time, focus and efficiency. The progression includes the introduction of larger objectives in which students will have to reduce a problem into smaller tasks. Rather beautifully, those larger objectives are defined by the Alpha students themselves — they are choosing to work hard as they follow their own interests.

Maybe someday a student objective will include a better way to build an irrigation ditch.