the grindstone

Last week I spoke to the program officer at one of the foundations supporting “Give Students a Compass,” a project to improve general education in California’s colleges and universities.  I was asking him about dispositional learning, which takes education beyond knowledge or even intellectual skills, and into behavior:

sample proficiencies:


explain cell mitosis, understand the U.S. constitution


write well, think critically


empathize, invent, work hard

Increasingly we expect time in college to develop all three kinds of proficiency, but as you go further down the list, higher education gets less reliable about measuring the learning and granting the credit.  Remember milestone cases in tort law?  I can test for that.  Negotiate a settlement ethically?  Harder to write that final.

Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners - title pageTo help me think about this, he sent me a study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which categorizes those dispositions that predict success in college.

The researchers found that the best indication a student will do well in college and on the job doesn’t come from standardized tests or from the other usual suspects, like socio-economic status.   Instead, it’s just  grade point average, even from weak schools, where As might be easier to earn.  Their theory:

The prevailing interpretation is that, in addition to measuring students’ content knowledge and core academic skills, grades also reflect the degree to which students have demonstrated a range of academic behaviors, attitudes, and strategies that are critical for success in school and in later life, including study skills, attendance, work habits, time management, help-seeking behaviors, metacognitive strategies, and social and academic problem-solving skills that allow students to successfully manage new environments and meet new academic and social demands.

Cool, huh?  Another way to put it:  our tests and administrative structures may be blind to dispositional learning, but our teachers aren’t.  And, as the report details, out of all those murky personality outcomes it’s the school-oriented work ethic captured by grades – traits the authors categorize as “academic behaviors” – that will make the most difference later.  Showing up on time, having your homework done and your school supplies at hand, that kind of thing.

As I think about it, those are more than apple-polishing.  Carried into later life, that attention to simply getting the work done, diligently and conscientiously, pays off in other, less predictable ways.

First, you get faster at your job.  The co-workers I admire most don’t work the longest hours, but they do work very efficiently.  As a result of sheer consistency and practice, they can do all they need to and have time left over for the parts of their job they like more, or whose relevance might not yet be clear to their supervisors.

Second, as the balance of your working hours shifts to the things you like more, you work more hours.


The most effective and content of my coworkers tend to keep longer hours, but it’s not always to do what’s in their official job descriptions.  Instead it’s because those excess hours – the voluntary ones – are spent doing what they want.  Not always, but often.

In the world of mass-market public higher ed, this interests me because there’s a big value to society when this happens.  It’s not just the extra unpaid hours.  Those discretionary efforts – the ones tinted yellow above – tend to draw more on workers’ creativity, dedication, and personal perspective.  They’re characterized by flow.  They add disproportionate value.

Such activity may or may not get much room in the first year or so on the job, but as the assigned work consumes fewer hours and less attention, unassigned work can move in, and the whole job becomes more fun, and then, sometimes, one you keep doing after the forty paid hours.

I may be wrong about this, too influenced by what I read from happy workaholics like Daniel Pink and Marina Gorbis.  Like my colleagues and me, Dan and Marina are lucky to have jobs that are more interesting than most.  Other people I interact with, like those who clean my office or roll my burritos, would be harder pressed to recognize and grow the yellow area.  But – and this is a biggy – those jobs don’t require college.

For the ones that do, the real benefits may depend more than we realize on the personal habits that emerge while we’re still in school.


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