Humans live in relationship – to one another, to environment, to our work, to our physical reality.

We have a relational God (in relationship to Himself).  Things of value are the product of relationship, of meaningful interaction either between agents, or of an agent and it’s environment.

  • Spousal relationships beget children.  Friendship begets harmony, good feeling, and cooperative value.
  • Exercise (interaction with our physical environment) begets health.  As animals, we consume our environments, in the form of food, to grow and sustain life.
  • Work is the meeting of our will with some object or task…with the intention that the object is enhanced, or value created through an exertion of ourselves onto “things” or “ideas” outside ourselves.

Genuine, authentic interaction between persons, or between a person and his or her work, or physical environment, is fruitful.  The result is greater than the sum of the parts.  “1 + 1  = 3” may be as genuinely a law of our reality as is the “true” version.


Work makes us human.

Rest is good, when legitimate.

We all know, though, how it feels to spend a day accomplishing nothing – being in or out of activity, without engaging in something meaningful (cleaning the house, working on a project, learning something).  Even having fun is accomplishing something (recreation or “re-creation”).

So why do we spend 6-8 hours a day between the ages of 6-22 NOT working?  The force of will required to sustain attention to a lecturer is a wholly different kind of activity than being caught up into the engagement of WORK.

Work is real, is meaningful, and is satisfying.  We’re wired that way. We all know this to be true, even as we disparage work (perhaps most when we aren’t fully attuned or buy into to the purpose of the activity).

That disparagement is as likely as not the result of spending a fifth of life, spent in conventional schooling, receiving training in passivity, rather than activity.  We need to make school more like work.

Here’s an example:  Our careers certainly offer one-and-done opportunities like key meetings and presentations.  But how often is that, really?  In knowledge work, most of the time projects and deliverables are iterated, vetted, and transformed through the collaborative effort and input of many people, junior and senior.

Contrast that with the experience of preparing for a test, or writing a paper.  One-and-done.  The answers are right or wrong, no going back.  How does that correspond to the 40-50 years of a career we were supposedly being prepared for?  How does that cultivate the friendliness with error that risk taking and growth require?

Would it not make more sense to turn in a paper with the expectation of iterating?  What did I learn from getting paper back with red ink all over it, without the experience of iterating based on those comments?

“Listen now, work later.”

Procrastination is real and affects us all.  Every day human beings face the choice between energy and effort expenditure now (painful) and putting that off until later (not as painful – right now).  There’s no reason to think this would ever go away.

What if the way kids are taught today exacerbated the problem?

Do you ever remember sitting in class and deciding not to pay very close attention, because you knew that you weren’t really going to learn it until you got home to do the homework or the reading on your own?  Or when you would visit the teacher or tutor later for a one-on-one lesson?

Most people recognize that it isn’t without writing the essay, or doing the problem set problems, that  a subject is really learned. Yet for 18 years of life (or more), we subject kids to hour-long lectures about something they aren’t going to get until they do the WORK.

I still go to school part-time, and still recognize how easy it is during lecture to “check-out,” recognizing that I’m not really going to be able to understand that valuation methodology before I do homework.  So life is short…why am I in the lecture?  Seems like a waste.

Let me clarify:  This is not the rant of a frustrated drop-out.  I have always been a great student.  Top schools, great college, top grades, top grad school.  Yet most of what I recall from years of lectures is boredom and resignation – knowing that I would only really learn anything once I encountered the material in an environment where I could WORK with it.

So what are most kids are doing in lecture?  Wasting life, I might say, and developing a mental attitude of resignation and absenteeism from their immediate environment. And that has GOT to foster behaviors that we bring with us to other areas of life.

It goes without saying that the traditional classroom environment is almost wholly unconducive to fostering an environment of work – even with the best, most engaging teacher, the traditional classroom is engineered to the core to treat kids as passive objects, poised to consume or absorb knowledge.  Too bad learning doesn’t work that way.

We’ve got kids, and work, all wrong.  They want to WORK.  We all want to.  We should have them work on the material, not listen to it, or view it on a chalkboard or projector.  Nothing is a draining as a day without productive activity.  It can’t NOT be harmful to one’s formation, ability to focus,  and tendency to meaningfully engage with an environment, to spend 6-8 hours a day, every day, for 18 years, with a primary stance of partial- to complete-resignation.

Performance Goals vs. Mastery

Performance goals are things like grades – work up to a certain threshold, and get a ‘B’.  A lot of rewards are based on performance thresholds:  poop on the potty, and get a piece of candy.  Hit the sales goal, and get a bonus.

Performance goals are an inherently extrinsic, and drive an external valuation work performance.  In some cases, they make a lot of sense (e.g. sales targets).  It is not at all clear that this is the case in education.

Performance goals encourage a good-enough mentality.  Objectives and thresholds are clear, and that “A” is the goal – not the true, down-to-the-core learning of the material.  With a performance goal, the incentive to take risks and indulge the natural desire for skill mastery is undermined.

Research examples abound.  Taking two groups of students, and given them sets of puzzles to complete.  One group receives rewards for finishing puzzles, the other does not.  Invariably, the unrewarded group will choose more difficult puzzles, seek to stretch themselves, and enjoy the activity.  The rewarded group will choose easier puzzles (because the puzzle isn’t the object, the reward is), and get bored and move on once the reward is removed.  Which group will learn more?

The challenge for educators should be to get students to pursue mastery – in a bold, immeasurable way – instead of trying to get an “A” or a “1” rating.  The A is known, predictable, measurable, and necessary somewhere short of mastery.

Pursuit of mastery is immeasurable, and undoubtedly preferable to pursuit of known “performance” thresholds.

Kids don’t need praise

This seems to be an idea on the rise: “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the inverse power of praise.”

What we want for our kids (and for ourselves) is to encourage meaningful, positive interaction with their environments.  This is the same thing as being productive, the same thing as telling the truth, and the same thing as being generous and considerate with others.

This should be a low-cost attitude.  Yet, it seems that praise raises the stakes on kids (and for those of us who were praised as children). The goodness of their interactions with their environment, which include sharing, toileting, ball-throwing, or even playing, becomes conditional on OUR saying their are good.

And so begins the need for extrinsic validation for one’s sense of self-worth.  Alfie Kohn elaborates:

“Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future.

The idea that this relates to fear, boredom, and paralysis in the face of reality’s challenges isn’t much of a leap.

Waiting for someone to say “Good Job”?

Plenty has been said and written about procrastination being rooted in a fear of failure.  Some think this is just part of human nature, an evolutionary adaptation to avoid exposure that would result in an untimely demise, if we lived in the hunter-gatherer era.

I think perhaps there’s more.  How often are you looking for or waiting for someone else to validate you before you would be comfortable doing work that puts you out there?  Could that have been an environmentally ingrained tendency?

Are we waiting for someone else to say good job, or afraid that the “good job” won’t come if you start?

“Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK” – Alfie Kohn

Many people likely will not identify with this.  For me, though, it rocked my world to thinkabout why I spend so much of my life, and drive so many decisions, based on what others will think…on whether I will get a “pat on the back.”

So….how do we motivate intrinsically (good) or extrinsically (bad)?