Is learning in school ‘Meaningful Work?’ (taking cues from Malcolm Gladwell)
by Alec Patton
In his almost unreasonably entertaining book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that ‘meaningful work’ has three characteristics: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward’ (p. 149). These all ring true to me (though for the third, I would substitute ‘a connection between effort and effect rather than reward – or else no-one would find volunteer work fulfilling).
Gladwell uses teaching as an example of ‘meaningful work’(he also cites entrepreneurs, architects, and doctors). So what about being a student – is attending school ‘meaningful work’?
Well, the phrase suggests otherwise – ‘to attend’ is not an active verb. Looking back at my own time in school, I would say I did a great deal that was ‘meaningful’ by Gladwell’s definition, but in most of my classes, I did not expect it – and it seems to me to be a reasonable expectation that the majority of the work you do will be meaningful. This is not to say that it won’t sometimes (perhaps often) be tedious, frustrating, and fraught with anxiety, but doing tedious work because you know it is critical to your goals (autonomy), being frustrated by complicated tasks (complexity), and worrying about the result your work will not have the impact you are hoping for (‘a connection between effort and effect’) are all consistent with ‘meaningful’ work, as opposed to the relentless irrelevance of ‘busywork’.
It might be interesting to apply Gladwell’s criteria to everything we expect students to do: does it give (indeed, require) autonomy? Is it complex? Is there a connection between effort t and reward/effect? And what would a school look like that put these principles at its core?