A Reflective Space, A Just Space: Good Work in Extracurricular Activities
In Fall 2013, I was part of Howard Gardner’s HSGE course ‘Good Work in Education’. Among the topics we explored, I was especially interested in how good work is manifested in education and the professions. In this blog, I discuss the sharing of Good Work.
I have taught high school in Singapore for seven years, a time when students are on the cusp of college and professional training. I wondered about the intersection between school and the workplace: how schools cultivated in students the work ethics they will employ in the future.
Pressures at work, pressures in school
The principal investigators of The Good Work Project noted that most workers want to do good work, but formidable obstacles make it difficult to do so. Pressures from the market, from the field, from peers, from juggling multiple commitments, make it tempting to cut corners.
The pressures on working professionals are similar to what students experience in schools. In an age of high-stakes testing and diversifying curricular programs, schooling can seem like a blur of demands competing for students’ attention. The school day is portioned out in subjects and programs—often for logistical rather than pedagogical reasons—and it can be challenging for students to see a more coherent “why” of their education.
However, developing healthy work habits requires sustained opportunities for reflection. Piaget and Dewey believe that learning and growth are essentially dependent on activity – from doing something, thinking about the doing, and doing it again. Hence, if we hope for students to do good work in the future, habits of contemplation need to be cultivated in school.
The ECA effect
School-based extracurricular activities (ECAs) are rich spaces for students to experiment with the “how” of doing good work. All schools offer a range of activities from waterpolo, choir, drama club, to student government bodies – and most students devote up to ten hours each week to their chosen ECA. Through membership, students go through a constant cycle of acting and reflecting on their behavior, their motivations and their relations with others. ECAs make powerful engines for development, since learning is based on observation and activity, quite different from the classroom’s more top-down instruction.
Using the Good Work framework, I set out to study how ECAs could develop student capacities for excellent, ethical, and engaging work. I interviewed young alumni from a Singapore high school about their ECA experiences. All were committed members who spend up to ten hours a week in their ECAs.
We spoke at length about how these activities years ago had impacted them. A theme that emerged from the conversations was how vital teachers and coaches were as designers of ECA experiences that could promote Good Work.
First, ECA teachers and coaches who created regular opportunities for reflection maximized the impact of learning. Whatever form or duration these reflections were, the consistent space to think led students to retain very nuanced impressions of their ECAs. Zoe spoke of how the supervising teacher held 10-minute reflection sessions after every practice. “She made me able to put my experience into words. Simply because she forced us everyday to think about what we were doing and tell it to the teammates.” Reflection led to connection building between the experience and the students’ developing work ethic.
Second, adult mentors who ensured fairness, and arbitrated in unfair situations, created a necessary condition for learning to occur. High schoolers might have greater autonomy in their ECAs, but a fair environment is one aspect they have limited control over. Kegan had a particularly vivid memory of stepping up to finish a project for an irresponsible student member: “I don’t feel the supervising teachers were a source of support or advice. They could have played a bigger role when people were not pulling their weight. They could actually intervene.”
Interestingly, those who experienced unfairness without teacher intervention went on to express disillusionment with colleagues – Kegan admits how his experience “in some ways broke my trust in people’s capability.” On the other hand, those who experienced fair and nurturing ECA environments developed a strong sense of trust. Although fairness in the workplace cannot be guaranteed, the latter group had the foundation to buffer them from minor slights.
Teachers as designers
We know what happens when adult mentors encourage limited or flawed definitions of success – the worst iterations can be found in some elite youth sport where winning is encouraged at all costs.
Yet a less considered but no less essential concern are inattentive mentors: these adults leave much of the ECA design to students, especially if students are competent and old enough to handle the running of the group. Schools do pay attention to ECA quality, but in reality, academic programs are prioritized. ECA mentors are only accountable for the most basic of guidelines for the legal running of the groups.
At this point, I wish to flip the table on the accountability conversation. Teacher accountability is important, but the discussion tends to place teachers on the receiving and passive end of the spectrum. This research made me think about how teachers can take ownership and run personal, simple, and low-stakes accountability tests – following up with the students we had taught.
Well-designed learning experiences should be more than “good-to-haves”. If we want students to learn to do good work, and if ECAs are precious avenues to practice good habits, we need to become dedicated mentors, collecting our data and designing experiences mindfully.
Jia Wen He is a high school teacher in Singapore. She is a 2013-2014 Foreign Fulbright Student and currently pursuing a Master in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Jia Wen is interested in educational psychology and evidence-based pedagogy.