Understanding Why We Work Should Inform Education

Regardless of the instructional approach, subject, grade level or any other factor, teachers are ultimately faced with the task of getting students to work. Indeed, probably since the first teacher and student interaction occurred, teachers have often tried to figure out how to get their students to both work and to work at high levels.

Traditionally, our students have worked for a variety of reasons – grades, approval, compliance, fear and future success. In terms of motivation, we have tried many things including, but not limited to incentives, choices, punishment, relationships, technology and more. However, how often have educators studied, or tried to really understand, what makes us – any of us – want to work?

As a proponent of students doing real-world work that they are invested in through models such as project-based learning, I, among countless others, are trying to unlock the magic of how we can maximize and optimize the internal desire to work.

The Power of Purposeful Work

Although we often approach work through the lens of compensation (usually pay), most adults strive for and discover a sense of pride and accomplishment in their careers. Yes, we work hard for our salaries and compensation, but successful people work hard also because their work matters to them. They see their work as a contribution to something larger – company, organization, industry or even society. We often refer to this work in terms of passion, purpose or meaning. This is all of becoming motivated to do more work, but more importantly better work, higher quality work, and more significant work. This is the process, feeling or experience we should be trying to impart to our students. If we understand why we work, we should be able to understand why they may not. This would explain why worksheets, tests, lectures, notes, and other traditional foundational learning experiences might not be the work that students will want to do or work to make it their best. Seems like a natural reflective question

Work That Others Will See, Utilize & Appreciate

One of the many foundational advantages of project-based learning is that there is an expectation of students producing public products. Not only does this connect to so many skills and potential for high-quality student work, but it’s also foundational to create the internal desire to work.

For students, producing public work fosters and creates more authenticity, opportunities for collaboration and feedback, and reflection and metacognition. Psychologically, this creates a different experience and association for learners and their work. Whether it’s a presentation, a showcase or exhibition, or the countless opportunities for students to share their work digitally with the world, students can see the joy in celebrating work, while also appreciating the acquired upskilling. There are many connections between going public and getting students to work. They are:

  • Students tend to buy-in to the work and take more ownership when they know that others will be seeing, critiquing and even assessing their work.
  • Students also walk away with tangible evidence and documentation of their work that can be part of their long-term and ongoing work to be used by colleges, employers, and others.
  • Students not only learn from their work but from the work of others when they see projects during all stages of design and when presented. This can apply to teachers as well.
  • Students also have a greater opportunity to network with more peers, professionals, experts, community members, teachers during all types of public product work.

Grades Are Not The Key

If you buy into the rationale outlined above, then we know that grades are not reasons, or at least reasons enough for all and for high quality, to get all students to work. Sure they work in some cases. But they are flawed. If we’re focusing on the grades (points, scores), then we are not focusing on the learning or the work. If we can get all students to work, especially producing high-quality work that is meaningful to them, wouldn’t the grades take care of themselves? I’m not going to advocate for eliminating grades in this post. That’s for another time. But I am advocating for creating learning experiences for all students where grades are not what drives the work.

Work World vs. School World

How much do our environment and classroom culture relate to getting students to work? As you might guess, a great deal. Our learning environments need to model and mimic real-world work situations. Think about the tools, resources, workflows, schedules, flexibility, products and collaborations that professionals use every day. In school, we should do the same. We don’t do our students any favor to create artificial environments only seen in school. Schools need to look more like work and less like what we know traditionally as a school.

Learners need to perform functions, roles, responsibilities that mirror those in the working world. Instead of a manufactured deadline created by the instructor, what if the deadline was based on a real-world timeline like that of a client’s need, a partner’s expectation, a contest deadline or that of a public event?

Public acknowledgment of skill mastery – such as digital badging – translate much better than that of grades or standardized test scores. Ultimately, our academic challenges should be born out of real-world challenges. Out texts, language, protocols, processes should be the same as those the pros employ. For far too long, we have lived in separate worlds – the work world and the school world. It’s time for school to live in the real world.

Work Matters

Think about all of the times Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is referenced. Beyond the lower level of the hierarchy of physiological and safety needs, think about how the work we all do contributes to our own acquisition of love and belonging, esteem and self – actualization. If we are engaged in purposeful work that connects us to real needs, real people and collaborators, and ultimately our individual and collective contribution to something larger than ourselves, then we may head towards self-actualization, as well as the continued intrinsic motivation to work (and do high-quality work). Maslow was driven by the idea of helping identify what drives all of us internally to move towards being a more actualized, or ultimately satisfied, human being. He argued that in order for this internal motivation to occur as move up the hierarchy, each level must be satisfied within the individual themselves. Think about how our work relates to so much of what we ultimately become.

Writer Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Since most of us will spend a lifetime working, we may want to convey to our students that our work can make a huge impact on the overall quality of our lives. Next time we wonder why a student isn’t working, we may want to examine the work vs. the worker. It’s our duty to model, train and facilitate all learners in engaged high-quality work.

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Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

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1 Comment


Loved this article. Completely agree we need to make school more like work. You come out of school and university still so unprepared for the big wide world. You have no idea what it's really like to have to have to take responsibility and be left to your own devices. It makes the transition much more difficult.

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