SEPTEMBER 26, 2013
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:
knowledge explain cell mitosis, understand the U.S. constitution
skills write well, think critically
dispositions 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.
To 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
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.