One of my friend’s kids was a boy of strong and abiding passions. From the time he was a preschooler, whenever he saw me he would enthuse about outer space or his electric trains. As he got older, he became a collector of knives, loving nothing more than to set out a careful display of his hardware, complete with a lecture on the proper use and care of each. He delved deeply into music for a time, teaching himself the guitar. Later he shifted his focus to bicycles, building new ones from old parts. He always had something going on in that wonderful, curious brain of his.
When the boy was in high school, I happened to meet one of his teachers. When I told him that I knew his student, he said, “I worry about him. He has motivation problems.”
Surprised, I shared my observations about the kid I had gotten to know over many years. He replied, “I had no idea. I wish he would open up to me.”
When I later discussed this conversation with the boy, he grimaced. I encouraged him to talk to his teacher, “It’s obvious he hasn’t gotten to know the real you.”
“I don’t want my teachers to know anything about me,” he said. “Whenever teachers know what a kid likes, they try to take it away and use it as, like, a punishment or a reward for good grades or something.”
HOW NOT TO MOTIVATE STUDENTS
When Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the successful Dutch home health-care company Buurtzorg, was asked, “How do you motivate your employees?” he replied, “I don’t. Seems patronizing.” This is the leader of a company with 10,000 employees that has been voted Employer of the Year in the Netherlands five times. Buurtzorg has minimal management and no human resources department, and runs on the principles of “trust and self-organization.”
Our educational system has long been fueled by the notion that one of a teacher’s Kira Retana main jobs is to motivate children. There’s a widely held belief that students, like employees, are primarily motivated—or at least can be motivated—to greater achievement through rewards and punishments.