The Opportunity Cost of Coercion

Posted on December 5, 2015


This is part of an ongoing exploratory series on Educational Ideas

It is very difficult to do good work if you don’t care about the work.

It is very likely that your best work will only come if you deeply care about the work.

There may be some exceptions. You may get lucky and produce something of great quality by accident, but across a wide enough range of time I would bet on this observation with regard to any creative work (learning, writing, art, politics, marketing, management, etc). Your best work is directly correlated with how much you care, how interested you are, how much you legitimately want to do the work.

And yet most educational experiences seem to ignore this observation.

It’s true that you often have to do things in life that you don’t want to do.

It’s true that there is enormous value in algebra and history and many other subjects that may cause students to drag their feet.

That said, a simple fact remains. If you are forcing a student to do something they don’t want to do, something where they do not see the value, something that doesn’t intrinsically intrigue them, then you’re not getting their best effort. There is an opportunity cost there that we must always be aware of.

That doesn’t mean that students should always do things they want to do or are interested in, but it does mean that the time you spend explaining the value of the activity or collaborating with the student to give them greater ownership is generally time well spent.

There are also situations, especially within traditional education, where it is very difficult to provide enough flexibility to students to allow for interest to be the driving force.

All of that considered, I still wish we were more conscious of this opportunity cost. If you ask a student to do something they don’t want to do then you should be explicit about the compromise you are making. It’s not the end of the world when it’s made on occasion, but if it is the status quo then that student is missing out on a great number of opportunities to do their best work.

Too many people will look back on their lives and say “I didn’t do my best work”. We need to be working to reduce that possibility.