Never too old to ask why?

26th September 2008 at 01:00

Some years ago, I read a book called Maverick! by Ricardo Semler, a Brazilian businessman. It described one of the most democratic workplaces in the world. Since then, I've wondered at times if his company survived. It was only recently I learned that it has grown, that Semler's original book sold over a million copies worldwide and that he has published another, The Seven-Day Weekend. In it, he suggests that the cardinal strategy for workplace democracy is to encourage employees to ask "why?" all the time and always three times in a row.

It was pure synchronicity. I had just written a booklet,Why, which asks, and answers, three questions about motivating pupils. I was inspired by Alan McLean, the educational psychologist, who has had the tenacity to ask, and keep on asking, "why" questions about young people's motivation for many years now. I use the word "tenacity", because Semler points out that to ask "why" and keep on asking it, requires courage.

Young children ask "why?" all the time. But they lose the habit as they get older, perhaps because adults tend to become irritated by questions that appear to be silly, that they don't know the answer to, or that are irrelevant to the topic being studied.

Adults realise that to ask "why?", and keep on asking until you get the truth, is hard in hierarchical organisations. Those in authority can be put on the defensive by people who question continually. Pupils who ask "why are we doing this?" can be seen as cheeky.

Pupil motivation is not simply about handling challenging behaviours, but about how to encourage all young people to do their best and not simply enough to "get by". It is low-level demotivation that frustrates teachers the most and does the most to undermine pupil achievement.

Each of the three questions in my booklet encourages teachers to "dig deep" to find what works - or not. It goes beyond simply focusing on the symptoms of demotivation and fixing them. Instead, it provides compelling evidence on the causes of demotivation and how successful teachers work with pupils to help them become self-motivated.

The first question - "why do all young people, at times, lack the motivation to learn what is taught in school?" - draws on a wealth of evidence gathered over the years on what pupils and teachers say motivates and demotivates them.

The second - "why are some teachers more successful at motivating young people than others?" - points out that those who are good at it do two things simultaneously. First, they build relationships by connecting with young people and helping them to connect with each other. They do this by showing they care about pupils and their learning and giving them a sense of belonging. At the same time, they create a secure classroom environment and help pupils develop self-control and take responsibility for their own learning. That these are crucial in creating a climate where pupils work productively is not surprising. But can be difficult to achieve.

For that reason, the third question digs deeper to explore - "why does what these successful teachers do work?" This makes us reflect on the basic needs we have: to belong; to be different and have our own identity; and to believe we can belong, we can be different and, crucially, that we can learn.

Above all, asking these deeper questions about motivation illustrates why teaching has been called "hard emotional labour" and why we need to find better ways to support teachers in performing this labour.

Why is available from:

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.


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