Start With Why

I have just recently begun reading "Start With Why" by Simon Sinek. I think the idea of the book appealed to me because I have always had a strong interest in human motivation, and one of my favourite quotes is "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how" (Nietzsche). (For the record I don't spend a lot of my spare time reading Nietzsche). I have always felt that actions were strongly connected to motivation in all aspects of life but this book has reminded me just how important it is, and it has also very clearly articulated how easy it is to get wrapped up in the "how" and lose focus on why we do what we do. 
There are so many things that this book has been making me think about, and there are so many direct applications for the world of education. One thing that has jumped out at me is that I believe the fundamental "why" of our entire education system is changing and this is causing confusion at all levels. Originally our education system was designed on an industrial factory model to educate students in "batches" (thanks Ken Robinson) with the intention of ranking and sorting kids so that our top 10 percent would go on to higher education. If I think of my experience as a student and now as an English teacher-much of the curriculum I teach is designed for students going on to study a degree in Literature (when in reality relatively few will continue on to a university, and even fewer will ever complete a degree in English). If the current purpose of our education system is to educate ALL students and create ethical and compassionate and critically thinking members of society then a lot of our current structures make no sense.  I believe this is why there is so much debate right now over things such as "no zeroes" and re-writes and provincial exams. It is because teachers and administrators (and students and parents) are facing a massive change of purpose in our overall system.  

Chapter 2 ("Carrots and Sticks") really resonated with me because I think our education system relies heavily on manipulation vs. inspiration. How many of our students (at the high school level at least) are interested in learning because they are inspired? How many of our students show up because they are manipulated? I would put grades, scholarships, university entrance requirements, exams, honour roll status, and awards all in the area of "carrots" because many students wouldn't put the effort in otherwise. Chapter 2 in "Drive" by Daniel Pink is also based on the concept of carrots and sticks. Pink describes how extrinsic rewards actually dampen motivation over time and we can see it in our school system where by high school, students have either lost motivation completely or they are motivated for superficial reasons. The same students get the carrots over and over again and become dependent upon them, while other students realize they will never get the carrots and eventually the sticks do not scare them anymore.  Both Sinek and Pink realize that carrots and manipulations are popular because they DO work, but they only work in the short term, and as Sinek states, eventually "buckling or even collapse is the only logical conclusion when manipulations are the main course of action".  I have recently come under fire as a teacher-librarian for removing the "Accelerated Reader" program at our school. Accelerated Reader would be a perfect example of a "carrot" program. Students get points for reading books (and then at most schools they get prizes). The problem is that the points are based on the  length of the books and simple retention questions about each book. People focus on the bottom line which is "kids are reading!!" but they don't realize that students may be choosing books for the wrong reason and they are motivated for points and not for the value of reading itself.  When my own son was younger I offered to buy him Pokemon cards each time he read a book until I quickly realized that without the Pokemon cards his motivation disappeared.  I had to go back to a consciously searching for books at the right reading level and that suited his interests. Now he reads because he enjoys it and not because of an external reward. 

Darcy has already referenced the golden circle, so I will quickly say that I think both teachers and students in my school need a refresher on the "why" we do what we do.  Maybe a discussion about the "why" would be more appropriate. Teachers aren't sure anymore about what they are supposed to be doing. On one hand we are told that students need to be ready for university and the "real world", and we praise students for high grades and scholarship dollars. On the other hand we are supposed to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse group of learners. We say one thing (it's not about grades it's about learning) and then do another (write this exam-and you need this course to take next year's course). Teachers need help crossing into a new world that focuses on creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, learning not memorizing, and that values the abilities and passions of all students. this point (I am a third of the way through the book) I would say that I certainly agree with Sinek's premise that the "Why" must be focused on in order to motivate and inspire. In the context of our education world, I do think there is a lot of confusion at the moment about the very basic purpose of our overall system.  We don't actually know what the "Why" is.  At the very least, the stakeholders are not united in a common definition. 

July 29, 2012


  1. Hi Naryn, great post, I so appreciate the clarity of your writing! I was excited to start reading this book, as I had been getting so many "clues" that Simon had something really useful to say. AS i started the book, it hit me like a ton of bricks, that what I (and most other teachers) have been struggling with is that I don't know the "why" of school any more. As you point out, the "why" of my Bio 12 used to be very clear; I was prepping students for university, for scholarships etc. This "why" was valid 15 years ago. But as we know only to well, this "why" is out of date and does not reflect the world today. However the structures, patterns and attitudes of the system we are in are built around this old and outdated "why". This explains the confusion and clashing (as you describe).
    I feel relieved to understand that this confusion we see,feel and hear about it due to this uncertainty around the "why" of school. It also helped me clarify where I need to start my focus in mapping out classroom changes for next year. I have been mentally wandering around a bit trying to figure out where to devote my energies.
    Excited to read the rest of the book!

  2. Thanks for your comment Carolyn. In a strange way it is comforting to know that others are really questioning things as well even though the feeling of confusion is a difficult one. I agree that many of our structures are incompatible with the more current purpose (or "why") of our education system and sometimes I wonder how much time should be spent questioning the entire system (and trying to remove or change structures such as curriculum and exams and timetables etc), and how much time should be spent trying to resolve the purpose of education (and our roles as educators) WITHIN the current outdated structures. Not sure if that makes sense, but I'm going to write my next reflection soon.

  3. Hello Naryn, enjoyed your take on Star With Why and its overtones with Pink's Drive and Robinson's The Element. These books really do belong together. Others I feel play a part in the discussion are Gladwell's Outliers for its take on the difference upbringing and culture can make on one's success, Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for its push for personal mastery in areas that matter most, and Godin's Linchpin for yet another push towards stepping up and moving towards being self-motivated.
    They biggest "Why...or more like WOW" understanding I took from Sinek's book was the absolute difficulty I have as an educator to truly motivate my students. In reality, I'm coming to terms with the fact that I cannot do just that. I can provide environments that support learning and create shared responsibilities with home, student, and school...but, as Pink and Sinek have argued so well, true motivation must come from within.
    What a book...what else are you reading?

  4. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for commenting! I really loved "Outliers' by Gladwell and thought it had some really interesting links to education. Would you believe that I have read the first half of "7 Habits" 3 times (!) but never finished it, and Linchpin is on my reading list (maybe next). I completely agree with you about difficulties in motivating students, and one of the things I've been trying to improve on is having explicit conversations with students about self motivation. I do believe though that some students come to school with a lot less motivation to learn than others (for a variety of reasons), and as a teacher it would be my job to try and help a student see why he or she should be willing to engage in school.

    The last good "education" book I read was the ebook "Why School" which was another brain-bender for me. It really had me questioning a number of structures in our current system. For my next read I'm considering "The Dialogic Curriculum" which was suggested by Carolyn Durley (who seems to be wrestling with a lot of the same questions I am), but I might go with Linchpin or "Imagine: How Creativity Works". Thanks for kick-starting me into another educational read!