Friday, April 24, 2009

Meaningful Work

(this is an excerpt of an email I sent to my parent-child list.)
I just finished reading "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell this past week. I want to report some of the findings in one of the chapters, because I was so excited.
The chapter I'm referring to talks a lot about the culture of South China, mostly about how rice paddies are tended and the sheer amount of work it takes. Gladwell makes a point to classify the rice paddy agri-culture as one in which the work done is meaningful. The basic belief of those who live by tending rice paddies is that if they rise before dawn, then they will prosper. He details the amount of work involved in this way of life, and then transitions to writing about math tests. We all know that Asian peoples have a reputation for excelling in mathematics. Here's the catch: it has everything to do with their work ethic. Gladwell cites a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studied this phenomenon. What he found was that when students from different countries were administered a standard test (the TIMMS test), he could predict how well a student would do in mathematics based on how well they answered a tedious, menial 120 questions at the beginning of the test. These were questions about the test-taker's friends, location, etc. Many students would simply leave a percentage of these questions blank. But the students who were able to attend to the seemingly menial task if filling out the questionnaire, were also able to attend to hard math problems. The researcher found that he wouldn't even have to give the math test, just give the questionnaire and the results would be the same anyway.
For much better writing about this, please read the book.
What I instantly saw and felt was affirming for me as well as for everyone on this list, was that what we do matters. Even the small things. Whether it is rice paddies or doing dishes or sweeping floors or gardening outside, when we create a culture in our home that models meaningful work being carried out in a peaceful, attentive way, we are giving our children a great gift. And we can hope this helps them in all of life, not just math. Of course, Waldorf espouses this wholeheartedly, and tries to make it work in this American culture. Here I sit on the computer right now. What work do we have in our immediate culture that is meaningful...that takes time and attention? Our children really take in everything around them.

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