What Drives Us, Drives Students Too
Educators and administrators will agree that our desire for education renewal is driven by the realization that school is rarely authentic and doesn't always reflect the actual way that information is gained, processed, and applied in a real world setting. Nowhere is that more obvious than when you consider public education's "carrot on a stick" method of getting students to do everything. We assign homework for drill and practice, but also because we feel a need to give students a grade. Grades are highly coveted among parents and children because if you work hard enough, at the end of the month you'll see your name added to a list of the principal's best and brightest. Verbal rewards are given out every thirty seconds and God forbid you miss a spelling word. Don't you realize there is a $0.05 sticker at stake?!
And as everyone knows, graduating from high school and entering the real world comes with its own share of graded assignments, a list of the boss' favorites, and constant verbal praise and encouragement. And when you wake up in the morning, the only thing keeping you from rolling over and falling back asleep is that mental image of a nice, shiny sticker... right?
If it’s not grades that compels us to do great work, what does? I’m guessing that a majority of people would say money, which is a depressing idea in itself. As Daniel Pink points out in this video and a 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, money and other tangible rewards are almost never an indicator of improved performance. It drives people to do manual labor, but for tasks involving cognitive skill, not paying an employee enough actually reduces their motivation. Even with a small staff or community, what are the chances you’re going to hit upon the magical amount that catapults your employees into productivity and innovation heaven?
Children, like adults, are motivated by three factors that are traditionally overlooked in schools: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink uses Atlassian to demonstrate the company’s belief in the power of autonomy and self-direction, but Google and it’s 20% Time is an even more familiar example. There is a lot of benefit to allowing students to choose topics that interest and engage them and projects that they find meaningful. It’s the lack of control that scares teachers away from this route, though.
I will admit that complete mastery of a skill or concept is an overwhelming challenge for both students and teachers. You can argue that there is not enough time in a day to address the wide variety of topics and skills that you (or ideally, the student) believe is important. Does that mean that we have to pretend that the idea of mastering a skill is unattainable? Time and resources can be made available outside of the school day.
It’s the last factor that is consistently absent from public education, in my opinion: purpose. I’m about halfway through my pre-service education and we’re delving deep into the proper construction of a lesson plan. Learning objectives and academic content standards are required, but how often do we communicate them to students? If we asked your class right now why they are cutting out illustrations of a tadpole developing into a frog to paste into a book, would they have an answer? And beyond simply telling them why they’re learning about frogs, do we give them opportunities to make a meaningful contribution with their newfound knowledge? Those frogs might be cute, but is that book going to be cherished and shared? Raising frogs, experimenting with their habitats, sharing the most intriguing parts of the learning process with friends and family… doesn’t that sound more fun?
A learning community of self-directed students making valuable contributions to their school and society… just imagine the motivation and “profit” maximization that could take place then.
P.S. For a look at some of the ways that Daniel Pink’s ideas are taking form in the classroom, check out a link I received from M.E. Steele-Pierce, a friend and school administrator in Cincinatti, OH. 8th and 9th grade students there are utilizing the ideas gained from Pink’s A Whole New Mind to take part in a unique learning experience. For even more information, you can read West Clermont’s Teaching & Learning Community.
Update: For an even better look at motivation, and more specifically, how the lack of a reward can increase potential benefits, George Couros wrote a response to Pink’s book and shared a practical application of its ideas on his blog.