I was an exceptionally lazy student in high school. I never got the hang of study timetables or regular work habits. I had no work ethic to speak of. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, I just never saw the point. I was lucky enough to get into university by virtue of a very good memory – not because I worked at it, but because my brain retained enough interesting tid bits to get me over the line. Way back in the mists of ancient time, Computer Science was a subject you had to clear an academic hurdle to get into, and I managed by some fluke to clear it. So I added CS into my Science degree as an interesting but not especially relevant fill-in subject.
I hated it. My goodness, it was dull. And yet, by third year, CS accounted for every subject in my degree. Here I was doing a double major in a subject that I professed great loathing for when I started. What kept me hanging on was that I could see the third year list of subjects, just dimly, from where I sat in my yawn-inducing first year classes, and they were fascinating. There was Artificial Intelligence, Image Processing, Computer Graphics, and a whole host of other things that actually interested me. I could see that it was going to get fun, if I could just stick it out. So I scraped through first year, crawled over the pass mark in second year, and in third year I actually started to enjoy myself. By honours I was loving it, and when I was offered a PhD project I leapt at it.
More years on than I care to count, I still label myself as a lazy person without much work ethic. Yet on Thursday I saw my GP for a disturbingly painful patch on my leg, which I thought might be related to the massive doses of antibiotics I was on for a sinus infection. My GP was alarmed (which is never a good sign) and diagnosed me with yet another bacterial infection – this time cellulitis, which she said is likely to be because I am run down and my immune system has become compromised. She put me straight on a third type of antibiotic, and told me quite sternly to rest, or wind up in hospital on intravenous antibiotics.
I was a little spooked by the gravity of her manner, and the threat of a hospital stay. But there was a workshop the next day that I felt was really important – about a new year 12 Computer Science subject. It was a long trip to get there, a long day of pretty intense work, and a long trip home. Only a crazy person would sign up for something like that after such strict instructions from her doctor. Certainly a lazy person with no work ethic wouldn’t even consider it.
Of course I went to the workshop. And I’m really glad I did. I’ll be going to the second day of the workshop tomorrow too, if I possibly can, although I have spent most of the weekend in bed trying to compensate.
And while I was lying in bed feeling rather sorry for myself it suddenly struck me. I have accidentally acquired a fairly insane work ethic. A work ethic that, truth be told, has probably led to this series of infections in the first place, never mind my ludicrous way of dealing with them.
This lazy, hopeless student now works herself half to death in order to do the best job she can. She gets given a medical certificate to take two days off work and she goes to work anyway.
I’m doing something I care about. I’m doing something I believe is important.
My education didn’t give that to me, but I was lucky enough to bluff my way through until I found something that did. Our education system is still, for the most part, not giving that to our kids.
I have seen students tackle subjects that don’t grab them with such unwillingness and lack of effort that I have despaired of them ever achieving anything. I have seen those same students turn around in other subjects and perform prodigious and almost miraculous feats of effort, energy, and intelligence in order to achieve something they are actually interested in. Something they can see the value of.
We certainly have talented, passionate teachers in the system who could make a difference. And some of them do. But for the most part teachers are so busy keeping their heads above water that they have no time to contemplate radical changes to both curriculum and delivery. Those teachers who could make the education system an amazing place to be are, for the most part, too crushed by workload to even contemplate it.
It’s very easy to label kids lazy. To curse them for being unwilling to make an effort. And certainly we all need to learn to put in some effort on the things we don’t want to do – life is full of necessary, but profoundly dull tasks. But I think we need to spend a little less time calling kids lazy, and a little more time asking ourselves what we can do to motivate them.