Although Daniel Pink’s revolutionary book Drive primarily addresses businesses, the concepts are extremely applicable to education. The book explains the psychology behind human motivation and work. This is probably the most transformative professional development book I’ve read since Teach Like a Champion. And I read it for fun, which is fitting 🙂
When considering my teaching and grading style (small groups and grades based regularly on participation), the concepts in Drive are alternately mind-blowing and completely obvious. I have always known that something had gone deeply awry in the grading of 6-12 grade students, but I could never quite put my finger on it. Daniel Pink and his research nailed it.
The book details the psychology of motivation and analyzes in depth the results of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is the drive to do something for a reward, such as money, grades, treats, or recognition.
Intrinsic motivation is that internal drive to learn something or do something simply for the enjoyment of the thing itself, with no reward or extra benefits.
Extrinsic motivation, when applied too much or improperly, snuffs out our internal desires to learn just for the sake of learning. You see, according to Pink and his research, extrinsic motivation is addicting. It serves its purpose of getting people to accomplish a task, but then that person needs more of the reward to complete the same task again. If you pay a teen to take out the trash, chances are he or she will require payment to complete the chore again.
Additionally, by extending the promise of external rewards up front to workers or students, we are implying that the task is not worth doing on its own. It is simply more effective to teach workers and students that the task or assignment has inherent value and that is why it must be done.
I have seen the addicting effects of grades in both students and parents. Parents, and therefore students, are stressed about grades and students expect A’s for completing the bare minimum. I think it plays into grade inflation and outrage against teachers is often based on poor grades. Adults go to work because it’s their job. Students through age 16 go to school because it’s their job. We should be teaching our children this concept. Effort and thinking should be the basis for assessment, even if it’s complicated to measure and test. Side note: This idea of going to school because it is your job would solve a lot of dress-code confrontation/modesty issues. You can simply say “Student, you should not be wearing that outfit because it is not professional.”
I had a teacher in middle school who informed us up front that if we completed the assignment, we would receive a C. In order to receive an A, we had to extend our thinking in some way. I think she was on to something. We had to challenge ourselves if we really wanted that A. We had to want it and work for it if we wanted to be a high-performer.
Too much extrinsic motivation applies to testing as well. When school funding is based on test scores, teachers will teach to the test and everything in class will point back to the test, instead of helping students become lifelong learners. This is extremely detrimental to the American education system. We will produce students who can regurgitate facts and knowledge, but lack creative problem solving skills, wisdom, and interest in pursuing occupations that require critical thinking.
Pink outlines three elements workers need to feel productive and useful on the job. In other words, these three things build and encourage intrinsic drive to be successful. Beyond a base fair wage (or a base C in school), workers and students need autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Independence and control. Students need some choice. In Drive, Pink explains that workers need to have autonomy over task (what they do), time (when they do the task), technique (how they complete the task), and/or their team (who they do the task with).
This has so many implications for teaching, especially at the high school level. Our current system made some sense in the assembly-line culture of the twentieth century, but our economy has moved on. Our education system needs to catch up. So many high school students are burned out and totally bored with school because they have no personal investment. It’s no wonder to me that a job earning money and serving people at McDonald’s is more appealing. We need to offer them autonomy at school and teach them how to use it. Even if we can’t measure the results immediately.
Building on autonomy, mastery is the idea that workers engage with their assignment or role and seek, all on their own through internal drive, to do their best work or become their best. To facilitate mastery, we must offer students opportunities that help them balance the challenge between what they must do and what they are able to do. The balance between boredom and overwhelm. The education term for this is “the zone of proximal development,” but we can just call it “flow.” But, we cannot encourage mastery by offering external rewards. Grades will not do here.
Side note: Pink suggests that we drop the word “empowerment” from our workplace vocabulary because, like extrinsic motivation, it implies that the higher-ups have graciously bestowed or shared their power with the peons instead of recognizing that the peons had power of their own to begin with simply by being human.
Purpose is twofold. Students and workers need the opportunity to do their work, or at least some of it, in a way that meshes with and satisfies a personal purpose, like a long-term goal or closely held belief.
And secondly, students and workers need to know that the work they are doing connects to something bigger than themselves or the immediate assignment. In a large corporation, the data-entry employee needs to know how his or her assignment connects to the CEO’s vision for the company. In school, students desperately need and want to know how what they are learning in English connects to biology connects to art. I often see students turning in social studies research papers that are missing all sorts of elements I know they learned in English class. But this is social studies, so why should I apply my English writing skills?
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are crucial to building intrinsic motivation, which is crucial to teaching students to think critically and be creative for its own sake. Grades interfere because students get stuck chasing the grade, doing everything inside the box, and being afraid to get the answer wrong. We should be teaching them to chase mastery. They will be far better civic contributors to the world if they are motivated from the inside out than if we leaders keep dangling carrots.
Middle and high schools are so compartmentalized, which works fine for teachers who are already working according to their own personal purpose and have the opportunity to meet with teachers in other departments to discuss vision, but students are rarely shown that big picture. They are told about it, but the vision remains elusive.
Let’s let our students in on the bigger picture and/or even invite them to help draw it! Let’s allow students freedom to pursue parts of their own learning and begin mentoring masters-in-training.