Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Goal Ought to Be to Stop Patronizing the Children


When Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the successful Dutch home healthcare company Buurtzorg was asked, "How do you motivate your (10,000) employees," he replied, "I don't. Seems patronizing."

This is the "leader" of an organization that has been voted Employer of the Year in the Netherlands five times. In contrast to the leading management theories that almost always come down to some combination of carrots and sticks, de Blok's company has no management, no bureaucracy, no HR department, and runs on the principles of "trust and self-organization." What de Blok has discovered is that "By doing nothing and doing less, you get better results."  

The other day, a colleague who teaches in a public school confessed that she had accidentally purchased "incentive snacks" and other prizes for her students, forgetting for a moment that they were still engaged in online learning due to the pandemic. Then she wondered how she was going to motivate the kids in this new era of remote education when she was not there to physically hand them their rewards. She's not alone in this. Our educational system has long been fueled by the notion that one of a teacher's main jobs is to motivate children to learn. Of course there are always grades, but if you spend any time in forums where teachers discuss their challenges, the subject of "motivation" is a big one, especially when it comes to middle and high school students. It's a bedrock concept in both business and education that employees and students can only be motivated, or can be motivated to higher achievement, by rewards and punishments.

The funny thing is, when you ask one of these teachers what motivates them, they rarely say "money" or any of the other external incentives tied to their employment. Indeed, if money were their primary motivation, most teachers can find more of that in another profession. No, teachers, by and large, are moved by a higher calling, as are the nurses who Jos de Blok employs. Most people feel this way about themselves. Of course, more money is always welcome, but most of us consider ourselves to be self-motivated, we just tend to think that those other, lazy, people need the carrots and sticks. Psychologists call this phenomenon extrinsic incentive bias

As a preschool educator, I've only worked with self-motivated students. Of course, I've also never worked in a place in which a bureaucracy was forcing me to implement the kind of curriculum most school teachers are expected to "teach." In a play-based model, we trust children's curiosity (e.g., their natural instincts to learn) and allow them to self-organize how to go about it (e.g., play). We don't patronize them with committee approved "learning objectives," tests, standardized assessments, or other hierarchical nonsense, but rather free the children to ask and answer their own questions in ways that work best for them, just as de Blok frees his nurses to care for their patients without the soul sucking rigamarole that characterizes the carrot and stick model. In fact, most research shows that these artificial efforts to "motivate" actually do the opposite: they kill motivation, which then leads to a kind of vicious cycle, which all too often results in abandoning carrots in favor of sticks like demotions and failing grades.

The problem in education are these damned curricula that are passed down from on high, like those dehumanizing policies that come out of human resources departments, foisted upon our youngest citizens because too many adults have extrinsic incentive bias against them. They don't trust children and so they patronize them by dictating their course of study complete with detailed assembly line-like instructions on not just what the must learn, but how and by when they should manufacture this pre-fab "learning." Is it any wonder that children, especially after years of the bureaucracy, become demoralized? Of course, the traditional take, as it is in business, is to assume this is a result of laziness so we go out and purchase more "incentive snacks," but the goal ought to be to just stop patronizing them.

What de Blok has discovered is that people are happiest, empowered, and most productive when they are trusted and free to self-organize, which is exactly what self-directed, or play-based, learning is all about. As de Blok says, "I've never met a nurse who didn't want to do her work as best as possible." I can say the same thing about the young children I've known, which is why I've never felt the need to patronize them.

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