Head of School Blog: On Major Effort

Falmouth Academy, I’ve discovered, is good with names. What others might call “Prize Day” is known here as “Recognition Day.” What others call “Oral Presentation Day” is known here as “Declamation Day.” But I think my favorite example of rebranding, so to speak, is the senior capstone project known as the “Major Effort.”

The Major Effort, I’ve learned, challenges interested students to tackle a research topic of personal significance and interest over the course of an entire school year. Under the watchful eye of physics teacher Dr. Yanch, students pursue their topics wherever they reside; hypothesis becomes thesis, and along the way the student becomes a master and, as is plainly visible in the culminating 40-minute lecture, a teacher as well.

Last week, I was privileged to be in the audience for two such lectures: the first explored the history of portraiture, demonstrating that portraits, like history itself, belong to the winners. In the second, a student shared what he had learned about the history of Jewish immigration to the United States and powerfully and personally concluded his session with some personal storytelling courtesy of his grandfather, who also displayed an array of related artifacts. Others on tap include “Machine Learning,” “The History of Hip-Hop,” “Concussions and CTE,” and “The Teaching Power of Yet.”

I share these with you not to brag about our remarkable students, though, yes, we do have remarkable students. No, I wish to highlight the underappreciated but vital ingredient of success: effort. Make that major effort!  

By now, many of us are familiar with the work of Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In a Ted Talk entitled “Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth suggests that, “what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective. In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ. But what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?”

Among her findings is that “talent doesn't make you gritty. Our data show very clearly that there are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact . . . , grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.”

When Duckworth describes grit, she could easily be describing a Major Effort. “Grit,” she says, “is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.”

We live in an era of instant gratification. We expect immediate results and if we can attain those results without having to expend a lot of effort, so much the better. We romanticize easy paths to success. We’ll be the ones to come up with the next Uber or Groupon. We’ll invest in the next Apple before it’s Apple. We’ll find the diet plan that actually does help you “lose weight while you sleep!” And if we don’t get those immediate results, we’ll look around for someone to blame: the system, the referee, the teacher and we’ll say, “no fair.” Or we read accounts of remarkable people doing remarkable things, and we we’ll say, “lucky break.”

The reality, though, is that most things worth attaining do require major effort. More to the point, perhaps they are only worth attaining because they require major effort.

Falmouth Academy is not one of those schools that accepts 5% of its applicants and then subsequently congratulates itself on the remarkable success of that 5%. We are not one of those schools whose motto may as well be, “eagle eggs in, eagles out.” No, the motto we should embrace, and on our best days do, is “Success is not about IQ; success is about I can and I will.”

Pictured above: Sarah Kerr presenting on Microscopy in the Third World and Tyler Edwards on Programming with Hummingbirds.

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