I have just recently begun reading "Start With Why" by Simon Sinek. I think the idea of the book appealed to me because I have always had a strong interest in human motivation, and one of my favourite quotes is "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how" (Nietzsche). (For the record I don't spend a lot of my spare time reading Nietzsche). I have always felt that actions were strongly connected to motivation in all aspects of life but this book has reminded me just how important it is, and it has also very clearly articulated how easy it is to get wrapped up in the "how" and lose focus on why we do what we do.
There are so many things that this book has been making me think about, and there are so many direct applications for the world of education. One thing that has jumped out at me is that I believe the fundamental "why" of our entire education system is changing and this is causing confusion at all levels. Originally our education system was designed on an industrial factory model to educate students in "batches" (thanks Ken Robinson) with the intention of ranking and sorting kids so that our top 10 percent would go on to higher education. If I think of my experience as a student and now as an English teacher-much of the curriculum I teach is designed for students going on to study a degree in Literature (when in reality relatively few will continue on to a university, and even fewer will ever complete a degree in English). If the current purpose of our education system is to educate ALL students and create ethical and compassionate and critically thinking members of society then a lot of our current structures make no sense. I believe this is why there is so much debate right now over things such as "no zeroes" and re-writes and provincial exams. It is because teachers and administrators (and students and parents) are facing a massive change of purpose in our overall system.
Chapter 2 ("Carrots and Sticks") really resonated with me because I think our education system relies heavily on manipulation vs. inspiration. How many of our students (at the high school level at least) are interested in learning because they are inspired? How many of our students show up because they are manipulated? I would put grades, scholarships, university entrance requirements, exams, honour roll status, and awards all in the area of "carrots" because many students wouldn't put the effort in otherwise. Chapter 2 in "Drive" by Daniel Pink is also based on the concept of carrots and sticks. Pink describes how extrinsic rewards actually dampen motivation over time and we can see it in our school system where by high school, students have either lost motivation completely or they are motivated for superficial reasons. The same students get the carrots over and over again and become dependent upon them, while other students realize they will never get the carrots and eventually the sticks do not scare them anymore. Both Sinek and Pink realize that carrots and manipulations are popular because they DO work, but they only work in the short term, and as Sinek states, eventually "buckling or even collapse is the only logical conclusion when manipulations are the main course of action". I have recently come under fire as a teacher-librarian for removing the "Accelerated Reader" program at our school. Accelerated Reader would be a perfect example of a "carrot" program. Students get points for reading books (and then at most schools they get prizes). The problem is that the points are based on the length of the books and simple retention questions about each book. People focus on the bottom line which is "kids are reading!!" but they don't realize that students may be choosing books for the wrong reason and they are motivated for points and not for the value of reading itself. When my own son was younger I offered to buy him Pokemon cards each time he read a book until I quickly realized that without the Pokemon cards his motivation disappeared. I had to go back to a consciously searching for books at the right reading level and that suited his interests. Now he reads because he enjoys it and not because of an external reward.
Darcy has already referenced the golden circle, so I will quickly say that I think both teachers and students in my school need a refresher on the "why" we do what we do. Maybe a discussion about the "why" would be more appropriate. Teachers aren't sure anymore about what they are supposed to be doing. On one hand we are told that students need to be ready for university and the "real world", and we praise students for high grades and scholarship dollars. On the other hand we are supposed to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse group of learners. We say one thing (it's not about grades it's about learning) and then do another (write this exam-and you need this course to take next year's course). Teachers need help crossing into a new world that focuses on creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, learning not memorizing, and that values the abilities and passions of all students.
So...at this point (I am a third of the way through the book) I would say that I certainly agree with Sinek's premise that the "Why" must be focused on in order to motivate and inspire. In the context of our education world, I do think there is a lot of confusion at the moment about the very basic purpose of our overall system. We don't actually know what the "Why" is. At the very least, the stakeholders are not united in a common definition.
July 29, 2012