What is the Work  Ethic? There are at least two perceptions of this concept;  the first, and oldest, is that “work is a moral good” (Merriam-Webster dictionary), or  “there is moral value in work” (The Free Dictionary. These two definitions place Work into the philosophical realm and are sometimes referenced as “the Protestant Work Ethic”, but do little to provide a practical application to the real world. And, as is not unusual, definitions and perceptions change over time, and current usage would more accurately describe the Work Ethic as “that cluster of behaviors one brings to a task or career which enhance the likelihood of success”(my definition!), and which are easily observed and objectively evaluated.

So, how do we get this to become a part of the curriculum? Should it be a formal, structured sequence of content and activities within a lesson plan, or should it be an informal record and analysis of individual student’s behaviors? Or both?  In my experience, we often see some treatment of related topics included somewhere within high school Business Education classes, focusing on interview skills, how to hold a job, and employee interrelationships; in other words, a formalized curriculum but little put into action, merely tested.  At the same time, we rarely see these topics addressed in classes below the high school level, and almost never is attention focused on “indirect instruction” as a means to acquaint students with the value of the behaviors included in the current concept.

Some years ago, in a discussion with Dr. Al Arth, a leader nationally in Middle Level Education, we pondered a number of questions related to this concern: “How do you teach “tardy”? Having work completed? Meeting deadlines? And others. It appeared that all of these had the same generic answer, the student received some immediate consequence, and then went on about the rest of the day. In other words, nothing much occurred to make the transgression “important”. There needed to be some long-term, strongly-emphasized procedure to make these behaviors significant.

At the time, I was the Middle School Principal; our sixth grade Language Arts Teacher and I decided to try something new, with the intent of making these things important to the children. During the first quarter of the school year, we asked the students to make a list of “those things which could get you fired from a job” and they developed a list of eight items that included such things as “not getting to work on time”, “being missing from the job”, “not having tools ready”, “not getting along with other workers”, “not following directions from supervisor”. We then asked the students to translate those items into “school terms”—-tardy to class, unexcused absence from school, assignments incomplete, not having books and materials for class, etc., and each item was given a number on the list.

During the first quarter, the teacher used her traditional approach to grading—tests and quizzes, daily homework assignments, extra credit, etc., and established a grade for each child in the class. But the second quarter, we told the students that their grade would be dependent upon those eight items on the list, plus a bit for the quality of their work. Realizing that most kids do most things well, we decided to only keep track of what they weren’t doing well, in order to minimize record keeping; at the outset, we told the students that they all had an “A” and needed only to maintain it.

And here is how the program worked:

There were about 45 days in each quarter of the school year; we assigned one point per day to each of the eight items, plus two points for the quality of the work for that day. Thus, there was a total of 450 points for the quarter. If a student still had 93% of those points at the end of the quarter, he/she still had the “A”; otherwise moved down on the grading scale to other % levels. If a student violated one of the eight items, its number was recorded on a daily chart kept by the teacher; most of the time most of the students actually had NO deductions; sometimes a student might have several on one day.

At the end of that second nine weeks, we looked at the “new” grades and were not too surprised to see that almost all kids got the same grades as they had earned using the “traditional system”. But now, she had some ammunition. She sat down with each child and together, they looked at the record for that student throughout the quarter; she asked the student what that child should work on, given the little numbers in the record’s squares. In general, we noted that a particular student would have lost points on a specific area, and was able to see that in the record sheet.

During the third nine weeks, students worked on those behaviors which they themselves had specified as in need of attention. The class had 16 students; 3 of them had always earned “A’s” and continued to do so, but all of the 13 remaining students raised their letter grade at least one level. Why did this happen? Primarily for two reasons: a close look at the eight item list shows a list of behaviors commonly found in top students as their normal set of actions, and the procedures we used caused each student to focus on how he/she was going about assigned tasks, and how to improve consistency. In essence, we were teaching all the kids how to be “A” students.

The success of this experiment caused other teachers to try the same thing, and with the same results. This would work even better with a program that requires students to demonstrate mastery of skills and content before moving on; in other words, letter grades would be irrelevant in measuring the amount of learning that took place within a specified time period, as Time of Learning would be variable for each child, Learning would be the constant. The letter grade would then reflect the student’s academic and workplace behavior, and strongly emphasize the latter.

So here are the steps to take, if you want to try this.

1) Decide who is going to be involved. Are you going to try this on your own, or in collaboration with other teachers?

2) Are you going to do a “pilot project”? You might want to try a short term activity, maybe three weeks or so, to see if it has promise of effectiveness.

3. Initiate discussions with the students, emphasizing “workplace behaviors” as the major purpose and linking them to school behaviors. Compose your lists from the students so that they will have some “ownership” of the project.

4. Don’t have too many behaviors on your list; too many makes bookkeeping ponderous and confusing; and doesn’t allow you and the students to zero in on important specific behaviors at the end of the trial period. Decide also how you are going to “weight” the academic performance—Half the letter grade? So many points? Etc.

5. Have the students help decide if it’s worthwhile to go further, after they see how their own behaviors could be identified, and individual goals set.

6. If you decide to do this “long term”, periodically look at student performance to see if it has had an effect on student ability to maintain changed behaviors.

7. At some point in the process, preferably early, educate the parents to the concept and secure their cooperation in allowing it to proceed, if only as a trial. They will also be good resources later, to see if the students’ behavior changes have carried over into the home.

In summary, emphasizing behaviors improves the quality of work. Try it, you’ll like it!


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