Saturday, September 8, 2012

My Democratic Volleyball Class

Manufacturers may possibly in their turn bring men back to aristocracy...Whereas the workman concentrates his faculties more and more upon the study of a single detail, the master surveys a more extensive whole,… the one is continually, closely, and necessarily dependent upon the other, and seems as much born to obey as that other is to command. What is this but aristocracy? -- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1840)
When I first read Democracy in America in 2008, I wondered if there was a freedom-centered approach to business that would nurture and develop people to be self-reliant leaders, instead of dependent followers. Inspired by Democracy in America, I read book after book, started my own blog on the subject (, and went back to school so that I could study business structures and so that I could prepare to be part of a freedom-centered business. After I was accepted to BYU, I seized upon an opportunity to be a volleyball PE teacher—to teach BYU undergraduates. In this arena I decided that I would begin to apply what I was learning.

The first lesson I have learned from my teaching experience is that “blissipline” unifies and motivates people. From Vishen Lakhiani, founder of the company MindValley, I learned that when people enjoy what they are doing they want to do more of it and they want to help others along the way. My students did not enjoy stretching and did not stretch consistently. Instead of forcing them to stretch, I chose to respect their desire for self-determination and add some “blissipline”. I began my search for “blissipline” ideas on the internet. The first thing I came across was a video called “Richard Simmons Leads Fun Stretches for Desk Workers,” and so, I watched it hoping to find an idea. While it was entertaining, I couldn’t see how it would help make stretching more enjoyable. After finding dozens of stretching games, I came across the well-known game, Simon Says. I thought, “I could combine stretches into a game of Simon Says.” I felt that I was getting somewhere, but it didn’t seem fun enough. Then the idea came to me, Simmons Says! I would dress as Richard Simmons and play Simmons Says, and add in some dance moves as we “Sweat to the Oldies” on my boom box. Let me just say, the effect of the game was beyond my expectations. All of my students were hooting and cheering as I performed my skit, and for the first time, everyone stretched at the beginning of class. Now, I bring my boom box to class and I or a student wears the wig and gives his/her best Richard Simmons impressions as we warm up together. In addition, the added playfulness has unified the class; those that were too busy to teach others now have the time to assist others, and efforts to build small, exclusive cliques have diminished.

Another dimension I brought to the classroom is that students would be treated like adults.  On the first day of class, I communicate to the students that they are in charge of the class, not me. They decide what they will learn, how they will be graded, and how the class will be run. My only job is to teach the volleyball skills they want to learn, make suggestions, and implement what the students decide. Another way I treat students like adults is to earn their respect, not demand it: I memorize all 36 of my students’ names, I get to know them, and I build bonds of trust. As a result, students quickly learn to express their opinions, to tell me when I am wrong, and to take responsibility for their own learning.

To further encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, I make all learning optional. At the beginning of each class, I teach optional volleyball workshops. Those who do not want to participate can play volleyball. Those who do want to participate learn volleyball skills. Currently, each workshop is attended by one-third to one-half of the class. As a result, students learn more because they are intrinsic motivated to master each skill.

One of the toughest lessons I am still learning is how to optimally challenge students with different skill levels. In the book Drive by Dan Pink, I learned the importance of “flow”, a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Flow” essentially means being “in the zone” and that can only happen when people are optimally challenged. After a few weeks of class, the most advanced players complained of being bored because the intensity of the games was low. They suggested that I drop the idea of optional workshops and force everyone to attend, so that beginners would learn to play better. One student suggested, in complete seriousness, that “for any mistake on the court, students should do ten pushups—this would make everyone better players.” Initially, I had no idea what to do, and I began to doubt my strategy. I felt stuck. I struggled to find a way to improve the “flow” of the class without stifling students’ intrinsic motivation and desire for self-determination. It was at this time that I began reading Drive and, over a weekend of studying and thinking, the answer came to me. The next class period I gathered the students together and asked if they would like to have an intense court of play. Those on the intense court would play a coordinated offense of their choice at game-level intensity. I made a signup sheet, and to my surprise, everyone signed up. Two of the three courts are now “intense” courts and everyone has equal amounts of time on those courts. Moreover, the beginner students decided that I would teach them the offenses. In just four class periods, the beginners learned the basics of both the 5-1 and 6-2 offenses, and now during “intense court” games, the advanced players help the beginners perfect their new skills. The new intense courts have helped advanced students reach an optimal level of challenge, and thereby reach a higher level of “flow” and satisfaction in the class. What is more, the added “flow” in the classroom correlated with an increase in workshop attendance.

Along the way I make mistakes, but I continue to correct them as I listen and learn about what motivates people. After reading the book Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn I learned that rewards and punishments stifle intrinsic motivation. As stated earlier, all of my volleyball workshops are optional; however, out of insecurity I initially offered Snickers candy bars as rewards to participants. As I read Alfie Kohn’s book I could see how my insecurity drove me to stifle my student’s intrinsic motivation to attend my workshops. So, I changed my ways. Initially, my students were disappointed that they could no longer win Snickers bars for attending workshops; however, contrary to my intuition, attendance to workshops has doubled; students are more interested in improving their skills to be better on the court and less interested in winning the games we play at the end of the workshops. With the Snickers bars gone, my insecurity with optional workshops, ironically, disappeared because I know my students attend workshops to learn, not to win candy bars. No longer blinded by Snickers-bar, control schemes, I now have a deep respect for my students’ natural desire to learn.

Through my volleyball instructor experience, I have learned that intrinsically-motivated people accomplish more and reach higher. Not only are there endless examples that people excel when respect, self-determination, and “flow” are fundamental to an organization’s structure, but I have first-hand experience that it is true. I wish now that I had so many more lifetimes to teach everyone what I am just beginning to know. However, I find consolation in my knowledge because to choose freedom-centered organization is to concede that one day I will die. No one can manage forever, but by relinquishing the illusion of power, I can build up others as self-reliant leaders and pass on a sure knowledge that “men (and women) can be trusted to govern themselves without a master.” (Thomas Jefferson)

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

I recently read this article by Clayton Christiansen out of Harvard entitled, “How will you measure your life?” It is what he tells his students on the final day of his class.

One of the items that he mentions sticks out to me. It reads as follows:

“One of the theories, . . . . . how to be sure we find happiness in our careers—is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. I tell the students about a vision of sorts I had while I was running the company I founded before becoming an academic. In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more [people think] that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people."

I’m sure you can see why it sticks out.