Landing : Athabascau University

Stupid and Lazy? Really?

I was reading a post by Seth Godin (at in which he was talking about motivating people to do work and get things accomplished. One way is to yell and ride and push until stuff gets done. Another is to create competition and scarce rewards to get people to produce. The third is to create high expectations, create the necessary opportunities and resources, and then get out of the way.


This got me thinking about self-management; something that's been on my mind on a regular basis in the last ten years or so, since I discovered how much I had to learn about it when I started my Communication Studies undergraduate degree with AU. I was never taught self-management, really, and I think I'm quite typical in this. Right from day one of kindergarten, I was told what I was supposed to do when, with parents, teachers and eventually bosses all watching me closely and keeping tabs on whether I was keeping up my responsibilities or not.


Which I did, for the most part. But that's not the same as self-management. I had very little choice in what I did, or on what time-line. Not that my life was overly regimented with overbearing, control-freak parents. Far from it, in fact. The reality is, though, that with very few exceptions, people in North American society generally don't manage themselves. Children are managed by parents and teachers because they're thought to be too young and ignorant to be able to manage themselves. Adults are managed by bosses (and sometimes professors and schools) because they're thought to be too stupid or lazy to manage themselves. (A couple years ago I worked at a local grocery store in the bakery department, and one of the things that really pissed me off about the job was how closely the employees were watched and supervised; the front-line employees were watched closely by the store managers, and both were watched closely by the regional managers, who in turn were watched closely by the national managers. Like the assumption was that that moment the employees were not watched closely, they'd either screw up the absolutely brainless tasks they did exactly the same every day, or they'd sit around and goof off.  Because they were obviously, fundamentally stupid and lazy. No benefit of the doubt. No thought for a culture of professionalism and excellence. The bottom-line assumption was that employees are stupid and lazy. Which is one of many reasons why I left that job.)


But this has also gotten me thinking about self-management in terms of my students. Most of them are really not good at self-management. Very few of them show up for all - or even most - of the classes. Even fewer actually do any schoolwork outside of classtime. Yelling and pushing, or creating competition are terrible long-term motivators, but the thing is that they work in the short term. And since I have my students for as short a time as one four month term, it's highly tempting to use to get them through my classes, even though in the long run, I might be teaching them math, but I'm not teaching them how to learn, or how to teach themselves.


I only have four months. If I get out of the way and let them screw up and get into trouble because they aren't doing the work, then by the time they hit bottom and decide to do something about it, it is likely going to be too late for them to pass the course.


And yet...I'm teaching at a College, not a High School. My students don't have to be there, most of them are twenty-something, not teenagers. If they aren't given the freedom and respect to make their own mistakes, when will that ever happen? How else will they learn self-management?


Hmm. I've been struggling with this one for years. Anyone have any thoughts?


  • I think you need an option C. No, it's not going to do any good to infantilize your students or force them into competition, but abandoning them to "make their own mistakes" isn't going to do much for them either, when not completing school and not being taught to "self-manage" are a couple among many effects of the ongoing project of colonization. (Of course, the question is "so what's option C?" and I don't know that)

    sarah beth February 3, 2011 - 6:37pm

  • Thank you, Heather, for your post. I have some comments.

    As an adult literacy instructo rworking at a College, I also struggle with the balance of how much to tell them, whether to let them be to make mistakes and thrive, or micro-manage them.

    To some extent we need to provide an atmosphere that gives permission for learners to fail, to hand in a paper so they can get it handed back for revisions, to take a rehearsal test to identify how well they have learned the material, so they can take the test again after they review the gaps in their knowledge, and discuss any questions they have with me.

    I teach computers, and it seems it is pretty straightforward. Yet computers are just tools; many students want to use the tool to communicate with friends, type up papers, surf the web, download videos, or upload their photos. I give them a series of checklists of tasks, and sit down with them periodically to identify what tasks they feel comfortable with, which need practice, and which tasks need to be re-taught and reviewed.

    Nothing motivates me to learn independently like a self-determined goal, whether it be to analyze academic blogging in greater depth while taking independent study courses for the MDDE program, or studying the effects of water and light and heat on the rate of photosynthesis on plants for a science fiar project in grade 8.

    I learn most rapidly when I choose the conditions myself, and toss others' conceptions of what needs to be assessed out the window. I was taught the grammatical structuresand vocabulary,  and was able to read and write French during elementary and high school; I learned Polish on the fly while living in that country for six years. The difference was that by the end of those six years, with the help of a group of peers, I was working in both English and French, and learned enough Polish vocabulary to translate technical articles for journals.

    I have noticed cycles of more intense readiness and willingness to learn followed by slow-down periods. I can go for several years mastering a skills set; the extent to which I can find experts available to answer questions predicts how committed I can become, and how much I can learn.

    My current project is learning Javascript and DHTML and CSS) I had learned some coding 10 years before, but now have a specific project in mind.

    Ideally, a combination of cognitive scaffolding and mentoring would suit many learners. I hope that the PLAR (Prior Learning Assessment and Revieew) movement continues to gain wider acceptance. If it does, there might be room for supporting learners to complete more of their courses for degrees as independent studies.

    The challenges of getting an education are overwhelming for many learners who do not live within a culture of formal learning. So many of the students used to a formal learning culture are accustomed to being told what to study, what the assignments will be, used to receiving grades and taking tests, and expect their professors to tell them exactly how much to write and what questions to respond to.

    This is not the case with adult literacy learners.

    The challenges of getting an education are overwhelming for many learners who do not live within a culture of formal learning that requires students to separate, or should I say, partition, their personal lives from their formal learning lives. No matter how tired we are, we get up and get to school. We push through the best we can rather than take a day off. If we ever do take time off, we need to contact the teacher to let them know, arrange a note if it is more than a few days, and try to keep up with the work from home.

    Not so easy for those literacy learners living below the poverty line, when their lives are being threatened, when they are being evicted from their apartment, when the utilities are stopped for non-payment, when they did not sleep much the past week from stressful life events, etc. They have no telephone, no computer, no washer or dryer at home to wash their clothes in.

    I am truly happy to see my students; many of them overcome their challenges just to come. And when they can't, well, I feel it is best to see if I can get a hold of them and invite them back when they are ready and able to return.


    Glenn Groulx February 4, 2011 - 8:06am

  • Hi Heather: I've been thinking about this issue you call self-management quite a bit myself, but in the context of mothering. I'm interested in your experience as an instructor (similar to the team that I send my 19 year old son off to college with every day); one of the things I like about spaces like the Landing is the intersecting of interests & possibilities of creating something new out of that.

    As a student myself, and possibly a future educator, I'm interested in how this culture of low motivation or lack of self managment plays out & how it might be shifted. So what is it & how can it be addressed? One possibility: the dreaded "group projects" create a micro system that needs all members to cooperate for it to "swim." I hear my son rant about them, but I also see him working hard, to sustain the esteem of the group. Maybe working solely for one's own benefit isn't enough of a motivation? Maybe the culture of entitlement undermines individual motivation, but can't quite succeed in the group? I'm not sure this is true for the adult learner--thinking of my own group project experiences--as Glenn points out, context & the learners themselves are big indicators in a successful learning experience.

    Christine O'Fallon February 4, 2011 - 3:44pm

  • Hi Sarah and Glenn,

    Since my students are all First Nations, long-term colonization issues and poverty are definitely factors, and there's pretty much nothing I as an individual can do about that. And Glenn, you're also right that many of my students come from homes and families where education is not highly valued, so they often have a hard time with making their schooling a high priority in their lives. I have had a policy right from the start of giving all students two tries at any given test, to, as you said, review the gaps in their knowledge. I have a few students who are doing very well with this, but unfortunately, I also have many students who aren't bothering to take tests the second time, or are re-writing them with no better results.

    At the moment, the only approach I can find to keep going and give what I can without burning out is to focus on the students who are motivated and doing well, and simply wait for the others to either find some motivation or leave. I don't find this very satisfying, but I can't see any alternative from where I am.

    I too have always been a self-motivated learner. When I haven't been in school I've still been constantly reading and learning. It has been both startling and disheartening over the last 15 years or so to find out how, outside of communities like here on the Landing, there are actually very few people like that around. I'm hoping to be a role model in that respect to my students, but again, I don't know how effective that is.

    Heather von Stackelberg February 6, 2011 - 6:26pm

  • Hi Christine,

    I've found that even at the Masters level when we had group projects there were social loafers who took credit for the group's work, but didn't contribute their fair share. There are fewer at that level than at grade school or undergraduate level, but I certainly experienced working with such people in groups during my MAIS degree. That's why I always hated working in groups all through my school career, and is probably why team work is difficult even in a business setting where social loafers can be fired. As a highly individualistic culture, group pressure just doesn't seem enough to get all people to carry their fair share. Even my First Nations students, though their culture is more collectivist than mainstream Western society, have their share of social loafers.

    I've talked a bit in previous posts about the Schwartz Values survey - which is really about motivation, what larger purposes motivates people, and one of the ones that has been linked to highly creative people is benevolence, with power and security values being negatively associated. In other words, highly creative people want to help people, and work for the greater good, while people who work for their own power and security are not creative. Something to think about, huh?

    Schwartz also says that people's values (and motivations) seem to be quite stable over time, though as far as I know, no one has systematically studied whether people's values change either with experiences or through concerted effort on their part. Which suggests that it simply doesn't work to try to motivate people, because if they don't find their own values and motives, it's not going to happen. And that kind of answers my question in the negative, doesn't it?

    But I don't like that answer, I'm going to go look for another one. I hope it's out there.

    Heather von Stackelberg February 6, 2011 - 6:42pm

  • Heather- very interesting re Values survey. Thinking of my own life, I'd say that the premise re "security" is accurate; when my family was harmed by a criminal act, I found I put away my painting...for years. No creativity was available, whilst I attempted to re-establish security. This likely addresses the issue of stability of values & impact of experiences--although arguably I might have always prioritised security & this was only emphasised in crisis. Food for thought, for me. A key thought you put forward--are students genuinely aware of their values & motivations? after all, one goal of educating is to raise critical thinking/awareness skills.

    Christine O'Fallon February 7, 2011 - 2:52pm

  • Hi Christine,

    Yes, I think your example illustrates the concept nicely. Creativity is expansive, security is closed and contracting; they can't co-exist.

    I think a lot of people aren't really aware of their own values; it's alwasy easier to identify other people's values than your own, I've noticed. There are a few places online that have a version of Schwartz's survey you can take and they tell you your results. I have one site bookmarked somewhere, but I'd have to go looking for it. What it means in your specific circumstances takes some thought, too.

    Teaching critical thinking and awareness is almost as tricky an issue at teaching self-management, I think. Some people will pick it up with a little help and prodding, some people seem to be almost willfully oblivious.

    But I might also be a bit overly cynical at the moment because I'm tired...

    Heather von Stackelberg February 8, 2011 - 5:50pm

These comments are moderated. Your comment will not be visible unless accepted by the content owner.

Only simple HTML formatting is allowed and any hyperlinks will be stripped away. If you need to include a URL then please simply type it so that users can copy and paste it if needed.