A few years ago I had the opportunity to listen to Daniel Pink speak at a conference about his research and at that time his recently published book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future. I walked away thinking that it was one of the best presentations I had ever heard, inspired to purchase his book to learn more about the role of creativity and how it would shape education, business, and industry. The book did not disappoint and it served as a source of a lot of my fundamental beliefs that I hold today.
Four years after A Whole New Mind, Pink published a book that had even further reaching influence. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us has unlocked the key to how people perform at a high level and at the same time experience a great deal of satisfaction in all aspects of their life: work, school, and home. What Pink discloses is that all of us have a deep, innate need to direct and be in control of our own life, as well as to create things. Each of use has a strong desire to do better by ourselves and our world.
Pink, a lawyer by education with experience as an aid to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, initially started writing about the changing workplace a number of years ago. He relies on meta-analysis designed research and quickly started applying his findings to education as well. In Drive, Pink shares that there has been a disconnect between what science knows and how business/education has used to motivate employees/students.
For years business and schools, and for that matter, parents, have sought to motivate employees, students, and children through the carrot or stick philosophy. A sweeter carrot or sharper stick would bring about the outcome that was desired. The most common example in business are pay for performance and in education, typical grading programs. According to Pink, that is a 20th-century mindset that does not work today. He has supporters that share the same opinion. A study conducted by the London School of Economics resulted in the finding “that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.” The London School of Economics is home to a dozen Nobel Prize winners for economics. In essence, the systems used in business and many schools are based “more on folklore than science,” and simply do not work. According to these studies, the extrinsic systems of the past need to be replace by systems that place an emphasis on intrinsic motivation. Rewards narrow one’s focus, and in today’s world we need workers that widen it.
In school we have students there are motivated by the carrot, in our case, grades. But that is a very small percentage of students, and even for those “grade-chasers,” straight A’s do not always result in a high level of learning. For some, the grade is an inaccurate measure of performance because of the system that is in place, and students find at the next level that they were more focused on the reward than the learning. Shifting from an extrinsic system where an emphasis on grade rewards to one based on learning is at the focal point of our standards based grading program that we are moving toward.
Pink states that there are three elements of “true motivation” that should be put into action. They are: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In Drive he shares about successful companies that have employed these and have become more productive and successful. Autonomy is control over one’s life and is prominent in businesses and schools that become high performing. When students have control over their education through choice and personal accountability, the depth of their ownership in their own learning increases.
The desire to get better at something is how Pink defines mastery and is at the core of standards based learning. In the system we are moving toward, mastery of specific content knowledge and skills, and the ability to demonstrate that, is the goal for every student. When students master something, there becomes a strong internal sense of accomplishment, especially when one is able to do something they did not believe they could do.
Perhaps the third, purpose, is the one that we have done the poorest job of using in school and business. Purpose is to do something that is important beyond ourselves. Today our schools are full of young, “me-focused” teenagers, and the millennials that have entered the labor force tend to be very self-centered. However, they very much want more, and are very motivated by opportunities to impact others when given the opportunity. They want to make a difference in the lives of others. We need to give them that opportunity.
In the business world employers still have to pay workers adequately and fairly, but those who have given employees a day each week to go off and work on something they really want are finding invaluable rewards. At Google, 20% of a workers time is spent working on anything they want and the result has been a number of new products that Google has developed and put on the market. We have a couple teachers experimenting with what is commonly called “genius time” where students are able to work on anything they want and direct their own learning. In addition to providing purpose, this learning is self-directed and often results in a very high level of learning.
Pink has given us the tools to improve how we teach and motive students. Now we must have the “drive” to do so!