The problem with our classes, from a motivational standpoint, is they've been surpassed by video games. Video games, as I laid out in my argument last week, are great at making players want to spend the time/effort/frustration costs of mastery; my world history class, less so.
The solution, however, isn't to “gamify” my class; rather, it's to teach our students, both with our lessons and with our lives, that doing hard things in real life is more lastingly satisfying than a video game can ever be.
Do Hard Things and the “five kinds of hard”
Do Hard Things is an attitude that says, “I am a person who smiles in the face of challenge.” It is a belief system both audacious and humble: audacious in its hunch that humans rarely realize their potential; humble in its awareness of the self's propensity for avoiding hard work.
According to Alex and Brett Harris, authors of Do Hard Things, there are “five kinds of hard”:
- Things that are outside your comfort zone.
- Things that go beyond what is expected or required.
- Things that are too big to accomplish alone.
- Things that don’t earn an immediate profit.
- Things that challenge the cultural norm.
The question now, for you, is which of these “kinds of hard” could you pursue this year, in front of your students? Which of these gives you an idea for not just telling your kids to work hard now toward a better life in the future? Which of these could transform you, just a bit more, into the inspiring teacher you set out to be when you got into this gig? (After all, this kind of transformation is a lifestyle, a way of being — not a line with an end point.)
Hard things all around
A fellow West Michigan teacher, Luke Wilcox, says that one of the keys to helping students motivate themselves is “representing success.” He's not just “some guy” talking about this — every year, nearly all of his AP Statistics students pass the AP exam in May. He credits these numbers not to insane pedagogical know-how or silver bullet strategies; instead, he says it's because he has learned over the years how to help his students motivate themselves to do the hard work required for passing AP Statistics.
So what does Luke mean by “representing success”? Basically, he thinks our students are more likely to work hard for us if we're working hard in our own lives — in short, if we're Doing Hard Things. And so Luke does crazy things: he runs races, builds race cars, shakes hands with President Obama (see Fig. 1), and helps write AP Statistics textbooks.
Now, that's pretty over-achieverish, Luke — what about the rest of us?
You are probably doing hard things already
If you're an educator, you've done hard things in the past — you graduated from college (about half of those who start their undergrad don't finish), and you may have your master's degree. Those are hard things; those count.
But when I go back to that list of “five kinds of hard” and think about the people I'm privileged to teach with, I see such an incredible array. If you'll let me brag about my colleagues for a minute for the sake of demonstrating the point, here are some examples.
- Completing an Iron Man triathlon.
- Becoming a yoga instructor.
- Owning and operating a successful business.
- Pursuing a second master's degree.
- Teaching an AP course for the first time — with 100 students.
- Reading 50 novels in a year.
- Speaking at a regional teacher's conference — since her first year as a teacher (two people have done this, actually).
- Overcoming a serious illness.
- Mentoring a younger teacher.
- Learning to be a parent.
- Learning to be a spouse.
- Coaching a sport.
- Saving $40,000 in a year.
- Learning a second language.
I could go on. For many of you, you don't even need to start a hard thing — you just need to be thoughtful about how you can use your engagement with challenge, with a high goal, with a long-term vision, as a case study of how one becomes successful.
In my own hallway, colleague and hero Brooke Holt keeps a poster in her classroom of what we Tech 21 teachers are doing this year (see Fig. 2). These are hard things that we are encouraging each other with (as adults) and seeking to do in front of our students — not to be show offs, but to be one more example in our students' lives of people who live for more than consumption.
Share a hard thing you're doing or are going to do this school year
My question to you is this: what hard thing can you do this year that could serve as a life example for your students? What's something you know you need to work on, but maybe you've been holding back? What's an achievement you've always dreamed of doing, but you've never had the gumption to start pursuing it, one tiny, dogged step at a time?
Share in the comments, if you'd like. I think that teachers, principals, and educators are some of the most inspiring groups of people in the world; let's remind ourselves of that.
Thank you to Luke Wilcox and Brooke Holt. Brooke inspires and encourages me every day; she also, in a way, introduced me to Luke; finally, she is so fun to joke around with, especially when she starts going insane about how cool math is. Luke's phrase “represent success,” and his overall life domination, get my mind running at high RPMs. He needs to write a book someday (psssst, Luke — I publish books). Both of them have an excellent way of sharpening my mind and emboldening my heart.