Research from the Macquarie University Business School suggests it’s time to rethink our attitude towards personal discipline in education, something it says has been out of vogue for decades now.
Self-discipline is critically important in creating a meaningful and successful life, and it’s always surprising when you come across a person from your past who has managed to completely change their life through harnessing this skill.
“So, why do some people succeed when so many fail? Is discipline itself the skill we should all be striving to master in 2020, and just how far-reaching could the impact be on our lives?” Dr Hana Krskova asks in her article for The Lighthouse.
Krskova’s interest in the subject of self-discipline started shortly after she began her PhD studies when she considered whether “underachieving university students and coaching clients [she] was interacting with could be taught to be more disciplined”.
From there, the academic collaborated with Associate Professor Yvonne Breyer, Associate Professor Chris Baumann and Honorary Professor Leigh Wood to investigate the issue of discipline in more depth. The resulting paper is titled, An exploration of university student perceptions of discipline: Introducing FIRST discipline principles.
The study involved interviewing university students from a variety of backgrounds and asking them what they thought ‘discipline’ was. The researchers also asked the students whether discipline would be advantageous in their university studies and future careers.
“At first glance, the results were unremarkable. The students found it difficult to define discipline and weren’t sure whether it referred to the externally enforced discipline provided by parents, teachers and employers, or internally summoned discipline,” Krskova says.
“Nonetheless, all the students believed discipline was positively correlated with academic and workplace performance. Around half of them said they aspired to be more disciplined.
“While my personal story of an immigrant who taught herself English and went on to succeed in business and academia is far from unique, I believe the application of discipline helped me to achieve my goals.”
Surprisingly, after analysing the students’ responses, Krskova and her colleagues found that the students referred to five topics “under the acronym of FIRST when asked to define discipline”:
- Focus – eliminating distractions to complete tasks
- Intention – having clear goals to pursue
- Responsibility – taking personal responsibility for one’s actions
- Structure – creating a structure to achieve goals
- Time – managing time to complete tasks
After reflecting on the data, Krskova realised she had subconsciously adopted a “FIRST approach to learning a new language”.
“When I was studying English that was my sole focus. I saw it as my responsibility to learn it and didn’t expect my employer or the government to provide me with language classes,” she says.
“I created a structure by committing to getting through two pages of exercises each day. And I managed my time.”
Understanding discipline and why investment is overrated
Krskova states that “even advocates of greater investment in education” admit that funding increases have not produced the results sought – improving, at large, the performance of Australian students, invariably in a number of standardised tests. She contends that this situation is normally put down to the different amounts of funding public and private schools receive.
But according to the researcher, “modestly resourced private and public schools that achieve exceptional results” are not difficult to find. Krskova posits that a combination of external discipline (enforced by teachers) and students with high levels of self-discipline provide the explanation for such outstanding results.
“Australian parents’ enthusiasm for schools – private or public – that champion discipline suggest they intuitively grasp its importance. Researched conducted by Associate Professor Chris Baumann and me suggests that assumption is correct,” Krskova says.
“After analysing data relating to 500,000 students in 64 countries, we found discipline is more important than investment. That is, all else being roughly equal, a school with good discipline will outperform a well-resourced one.”
In The Lighthouse article, Krskova also states that the evidence-base for the importance of discipline beyond the school years is strong, So, too, are so-called soft skills.
“For example, research done by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman suggests workers who possess soft skills, such as perseverance and conscientiousness, can out-perform and out-earn their more technically or cognitively gifted colleagues,” Krskova says.
“Of course, having internal discipline doesn’t necessarily mean someone will possess all the desirable soft skills. But a disciplined individual who aspires to perform at a high level is, for instance, much more likely to succeed in challenging circumstances and take a meticulous approach to their work tasks.”
Spreading the FIRST “gospel”
Based on her own experiences and the research findings, Krskova and her colleagues at Macquarie Business School hope “schools, universities, sports clubs and employers will all offer courses in FIRST” in the near future. The researcher hopes that people will realise that discipline is not an innate quality – it can be taught and learnt.
“You aren’t simply born with a set amount of discipline that never increases or decreases. You can become more disciplined then harness that greater self-control to become fitter, healthier, happier, more successful in your career and less prone to risky behaviours,” she says.
“People from any background, in any situation, with any goal, can use FIRST. If they do, they are likely to be astonished by what they can accomplish.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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