I’ve known for a while now that the desire to learn is critical in education. I didn’t expect to read a book written in 1937 that clearly drives the point home that desire is the first step to anything. I love being surprised by a great read.
What does a business/self-help book called Think and Grow Rich have to do with education?! Maybe nothing. But if desire is as big as one of the most influential books on success says it is, isn’t that something we should make sure we are fostering in the minds and hearts of our children in the classroom, nay, everywhere?
“I want,” is the beginning of every action. How can you reach for something if you don’t first want it? This should not be a surprise to any of us. We seem to know it as soon as we hear the idea. But the pursuit of goals is a difficult journey, made much more difficult if we lack a burning desire to arrive.
How Would I Behave if I Really Liked School?
Imagine how much easier school would have been if you desperately desired to be there every day.
*Just as an aside, imagine for a moment how much easier work would be if the same were true!
If you truly desired your education, how often would you…
talk in class?
miss homework assignments?
talk back to the teacher?
stay up too late?
But, before we can just blame the students for not wanting to be there, we have to be willing to take inventory or our own system. We need to recognize behaviors that are blocking students’ desire to engage.
If you spend any time following me on social media you’ll see me identify what I think is the problem. #coercionistheproblem
Does School Block Desire to Learn?
Education is important, right? It shouldn’t be that difficult to convince children of the importance of learning things. But we struggle, even as parents, to do this on a daily basis.
Sir Ken Robinson gave a well-known talk on how the structure of schooling may be killing off creativity. If you’ve never watched the Ken Robinson talk, watch below:
William Glasser had a similar perspective on schooling, though I’m not sure he ever used the word “desire.” Glasser found that when he was able to remove the perception of coercion, or being controlled, from the student’s perspective that engagement would quickly improve and behavior would become much more appropriate.
He identified seven behaviors, often used by people in authority, that often turned off engagement and sent many students in the opposite way. I’ve offered some perspective on his view here but it’s worth revisiting.
Criticism, Blame and Threats
Criticism is severely damaging to relationships, especially in relationships that involve authority. You rarely forget the teachers who criticized you, and those memories are not positive.
Threats can come in the form of things your teacher thinks you will miss out on if your behavior continues, normally delivered with an air of condescension or sarcasm. Kids don’t generally like adults who threaten or belittle them.
Complaining and Nagging
I just read these words and my skin crawls. Nagging someone is normally accompanied by moans of exasperation or eye rolling as if to say, “Why do I have to tell you this so many times?” Complaining is just like it.
Punishments and Bribes
The idea of causing pain or discomfort in order to teach someone to not cause pain or discomfort for others is the highest level of absurdity. I’ve actually heard a parent scream at her child, “Stop screaming!”
I don’t think the message is getting through. If I’m only doing a task to avoid pain or get a reward, then the task must not be worth doing.
There’s a great deal of research to back this up. Alfie Kohn is one of my favorite writers and speakers on these two issues, which are just two sides of the same coin. He speaks and writes often about punishment, and his book Punished by Rewards is an education classic.
Take a moment to hear a brief description of his criticism of punishment.
Respect Enhances Desire to Learn
Activating student desire should be the focus of every meeting, professional development, conversation, and decision in the school until the issue of engagement is solved. To fully remove these coercive behaviors from the classroom I think the self-directed education model is the most effective. In fact, I’m working toward building Self Directed Academy in Indiana for that very reason.
But, simply put, we just need to do the opposite of the seven deadly behaviors.
Supporting someone’s journey does not mean agreeing with it. If a child wants to be a professional gamer then find ways to support the development of the skills they’ll need; that may include more game time than you initially feel comfortable with. Everyone who became great at something was criticized for investing too much time into it at some point.
Show them your ability to listen and understand. The closest relationships we build are with people who know when to just listen. No judgment. No advice. Just hear them.
Encouragement can pull a person out of frustration if it is used in the right moment. Authenticity is important here. The person has to believe you mean it. If you’re just reciting scripture or some wisdom to get them to stop bumming you out, they’re going to know.
Acceptance, Trust and Respect
Kids will stop chasing or communicating their desires if they don’t feel accepted by the adults in their lives. Or worse, children will often choose desires that give them the most freedom over their lives instead of paths that are of genuine interest. If they can trust that you’ll accept and respect their desire, you’ll start to hear a lot more about it and get more opportunities to guide them.
When we negotiate with our children, we show them how to compromise in a relationship. Compromise is one of the great tools in building collaboration. I do this all the time with a preschooler and a toddler in the home. We have many differences of opinion and preferences for how loud the room should be at any given time. I could just set a rule and stand by it but the lessons learned in negotiating and developing empathy are too important.
Coercion is the Problem
Notice that in the title I used the word “schooling” and not schools, education, or teachers. There are many educators and schools where a vast majority of students are pleased to be there and engaged in meaningful learning. “Schooling” refers to the method of teaching or managing children in a way that feels like it is done to them and not with them. Again, coercion is the problem.
Schooling affects your desire to learn, especially the kinds of things that are generally learned in school. When I remove coercion from my interactions with kids, I see desire turn into a burning flame. I’ll never get tired of that experience.
It’s not the content. Children love learning. It’s coercion.
It’s always coercion. It won’t matter what time you start school, what you teach, where you teach, how long between breaks, how many choices you give, how fun the lesson is, etc, etc, etc.
If students feel coerced, pushed, manipulated, or tricked, they’re going to push back…some will more than others.