Fires in the Mind

To motivate kids: Get their jobs done!

“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!


4 Responses to “To motivate kids: Get their jobs done!”

  1. Geoff Allemand says:

    I had the great opportunity last year to have my first overseas trip to the USA (from Australia) to be part of a study tour visiting Big Picture schools in California (

    I realised then that I had found the holy grail for teachers as it was all about giving students an opportunity to learn by following their interests and passion. Kids loved their class and school and it was so inspiring.
    I now have the opportunity to use this model in Australia and to be supported by Big Picture Education Australia. I mentioned your work to the Big Picture Australia CEO and she was already aware of the work you do and highly recommended further research into your work.

  2. Daniel Greene says:

    I really enjoyed this article and your summary, thank you! The Sudbury model is one great example of schooling that incorporates project-based learning, student cooperation (there is no age separation!) and formative feedback to great effect. See for more.

  3. Emily VA says:

    As a former business consultant who is transitioning into teaching, I think focusing on what students really want out of school is an interesting lens. However, I wonder if Christensen has identified the right core “problems” for every student.

    My experience in student teaching middle school is that at least some of the students are motivated by wanting to spend time with their friends. But for students who are new to the school or struggle socially for various reasons, the social aspect of the school can be as intimidating and formidable as the academics.

    I think the desire to feel successful at something is more universal. Something I very much admire in the way my mentor teacher structures his sixth grade Earth Science course so that students who may have trouble in subjects that are more intensive in reading, writing, or math can still achieve mastery of the material in his course because he provides enough different access-ways and strategies. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if the fastest, best prepared students are sufficiently challenged by his class. Making an environment with the “just right” level of challenge for 30 different students is something I’m still hoping to learn more about.

  4. sfed says:

    I am a student teacher and I am interested in Christensen’s point regarding, “no more handing out grades that stratify.” It seems to me that we have a grade-centric culture and moving away from that will be extremely difficult, especially given the current climate of accountability based on standardized testing. The general (and in my opinion, unfortunate) view is that grades (and test scores) tell you everything you need to know about the academic “quality” of a student/teacher/school/district.

    I believe differentiating instruction is a great way to meet individual student needs. However, in a recent discussion with a fellow classmate, we were wondering what to do with a student who is bored in the class and therefore refuses to do any work (so he is getting a bad grade). I suggested giving him a more challenging assignment than the rest of the class (though on the same topic) – something that would really put his cognitive abilities to use (and hopefully, catch his interest) and then grading him on that assignment. My classmate said that if she were the child’s parent, she would storm into the school and demand to know why her child was being given more difficult work than everyone else – that isn’t fair. My classmate certainly has a point. At the same time, is it fair to treat all students the same way, when their needs are different? It makes me wonder what should define fairness in the classroom. Perhaps it’s time to re-define what grades really mean…

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