“If the kids want to learn, we couldn’t stop ’em. If they don’t, we can’t make ’em.”
That’s the heart of his argument Clayton Christensen makes in his latest addition to the book Disrupting Class, a new chapter about students’ motivation to learn in school. (He’s quoting the late Ohio State educator Jack Frymier, by the way.)
Christensen teaches at the Harvard Business School, and he brings that mindset to his thoughtful analyses of education and innovation.
Kids are “customers” with a “job to be done,” the way he puts it. They have a couple of fundamental problems they want to resolve, and school may or may not be the place for them to take care of that.
The first is their desire to be with their friends. (Anyone who’s been a kid knows that’s a big draw for school. I’ve heard it from hundreds of youth in our work on Fires in the Mind and my other book collaborations with students.)
The second is their very human desire to feel successful at something. That sometimes gets fulfilled in the classroom, but more often it does not. (The data on student achievement show that, and kids say the same thing to me. They call school “boring” largely because sitting in class so often dulls their sense that they are getting anywhere.)
Of course, many kids get that satisfying feeling of success from the “extras” at school — sports teams, musical groups, plays, clubs. When you add in the pleasure of doing those things with peers, you get a powerful mix that keeps them coming in.
In Christensen’s view, school’s “educational” function – that is, classes as usual – has to compete against those more powerful satisfactions, wherever they arise. For some kids, academic coursework competes with sports. For others, it competes with gang activities, or video games. For others, it competes with paying jobs.
His bottom line: A smart organization figures out what job its customers want done – in this case, the company of friends and the satisfaction of success – and integrates it into the “product.”
If learning important concepts and skills is the product, therefore . . .
We should be knitting that learning into experiences that 1) involve the company of friends, and 2) help students feel the satisfaction of real progress every day.
What would that look like?
• Project-based learning where students work in teams on things that matter to them and their communities
• Frequent opportunities for kids to test themselves against a task that’s neither too easy nor too hard, with immediate feedback and coaching.
• No more handing out grades that stratify some kids as successes and others as failures. Instead, every learner strives, every day, for the “just-right” next step that yields success. (For Christensen, this means using technology for differentiating tasks to suit the learner’s level. For example, I’m using Rosetta Stone to learn Spanish, and it sets every session’s tasks to stretch me just beyond where I am.)
I could do without many of the business analogies in Disrupting Class, but that’s unimportant next to the fundamental clarity of Christensen’s message:
It’s not enough for schools to “offer” a classroom-based education and expect kids to want it because it’s on the shelf. Instead, we must shape the learning experience to match just what kids are shopping for. And along the way, we bring a world of learning to life!
I can think of plenty of examples of this kind of learning that is taking place right now in schools around the country. If you’ll share yours, I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Let’s get this job done!