Sunday, March 20, 2011

One of my favorite Seth Godin posts of all time!

On January 24, 2011 Seth Godin posted the following post on his blog. It would be great if more educators could read this. There is something to be learned here. Setting up a classroom based on collaboration, and not competition is key. Moreover, allow for more student choice. Indeed, if we want our students to be problem solvers and life-long learners the ideas Seth Godin poses here can help. --Brian

Here is the post:

Three ways to help people get things done

A friend sent me a copy of a new book about basketball coach Don Meyer. Don was one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, apparently. It's quite a sad book—sad because of his tragic accident, but also sad because it's a vivid story about a misguided management technique.

Meyer's belief was that he could become an external compass and taskmaster to his players. By yelling louder, pushing harder and relentlessly riding his players, his plan was to generate excellence by bullying them. The hope was that over time, people would start pushing themselves, incorporating Don's voice inside their head, but in fact, this often turns out to be untrue. People can be pushed, but the minute you stop, they stop. If the habit you've taught is to achieve in order to avoid getting chewed out, once the chewing out stops, so does the achievement.

It might win basketball games, but it doesn't scale and it doesn't last. When Don left the room (or the players graduated), the team stopped winning.

A second way to manage people is to create competition. Pit people against one another and many of them will respond. Post all the grades on a test, with names, and watch people try to outdo each other next time. Promise a group of six managers that one of them will get promoted in six months and watch the energy level rise. Want to see little league players raise their game? Just let them know the playoffs are in two weeks and they're one game out of contention.

Again, there's human nature at work here, and this can work in the short run. The problem, of course, is that in every competition most competitors lose. Some people use that losing to try harder next time, but others merely give up. Worse, it's hard to create the cooperative environment that fosters creativity when everyone in the room knows that someone else is out to defeat them.

Both the first message (the bully with the heart of gold) and the second (creating scarce prizes) are based on a factory model, one of scarcity. It's my factory, my basketball, my gallery and I'm going to manipulate whatever I need to do to get the results I need. If there's only room for one winner, it seems these approaches make sense.

The third method, the one that I prefer, is to open the door. Give people a platform, not a ceiling. Set expectations, not to manipulate but to encourage. And then get out of the way, helping when asked but not yelling from the back of the bus.

When people learn to embrace achievement, they get hooked on it. Take a look at the incredible achievements the alumni of some organizations achieve after they move on. When adults (and kids) see the power of self-direction and realize the benefits of mutual support, they tend to seek it out over and over again.

In a non-factory mindset, one where many people have the opportunity to use the platform (I count the web and most of the arts in this category), there are always achievers eager to take the opportunity. No, most people can't manage themselves well enough to excel in the way you need them to, certainly not immediately. But those that can (or those that can learn to) are able to produce amazing results, far better than we ever could have bullied them into. They turn into linchpins, solving problems you didn't even realize you had. A new generation of leaders is created...

And it lasts a lifetime.

Seth Godin


  1. Hi Brian,

    Great post and I agree. Bullying and short-term reward are not the ways to teach. But I noticed two points about your post which I think need further address.

    First, you provided good examples of best-meant bullying and immediate goal and reward, but none for opening the door. (I am not even sure what opening the door really looks like.) I believe this is likely because we as educators are still idealizing this set-the-environment and light-the-wonder approach to teaching, which I agree is currently the best school on how to best serve our kids and students. But a lot of us, most of us (?), are idealizing this. When are we going to consider how? Don't get me wrong; I am still working on the case by case approach of this way of teaching. Perhaps we all are. But while we are, this method must be maintained and passed on from topic to topic, class to class and grade to grade (a very easy way to toss the ball out the window or back through the open door). It is possible, I think, for this method to sustain itself throughout our students' careers. We need to agree on the cross-the-board how though through planning and collaboration.

    Second, you mentioned that some people will thrive on the open-the-door method. However, others will fail. And both of these extremes, and the continuum between, are true of the other two methods as well. So do we abandon those who thrive in one method and fail in another? Personally, I like the ideas of empowering people and encouraging student-directed individual and collaborative study. I encourage each kid who graduates from the schools I teach at to take some directed studies in post-secondary education during and after their second year of post-secondary study or apprenticeship. But some people, particularly in elementary and secondary school, are not ready for such individual study, as you mention. So, when should we plunge these kids into the open-the-door classroom?

    Idealism is great. It encourages improvement, problem solving and innovation. But where are the examples, the details and the how-tos?

    Thanks for a great post. You offered thoughtful food to chew on.


  2. Hi Shawn, thanks for the comment. First I would like to say that the text to which you refer was written by Seth Godin. I was just reproducing it here. I do apologize for the confusion.

    That said, you raise excellent points. I also would like Seth to expand on the open door. I would like to point out that he is talking about adults so some of his ideas may have to be tweaked a little for the classroom. What I got from his post was, give students more choice in what they have to do, and create a collaborative approach, as you mention above.

    I hope this comment explains how I feel about Godin's post and how I want my classroom to be.

    Cheers to you for reading.

  3. Oh yes, one further point that I forgot to address. Godin seems to believe that, "most people can't manage themselves well enough to excel in the way you need them to, certainly not immediately." I took this to mean that we need to work with our students to be problem solvers. And as always, we need to work in a collaborative environment.

  4. Brian, I'm so with you that we need to facilitate peoples' talents and to collaborate with them

  5. Indeed, that would be the function and definition of our profession, particularly as it is being defined now.

    A couple of days ago, I tweeted several articles about individual learning and collaboration, the best of which I think is Ideas for student-centered learning projects - Related Stories.