The Power to Enrich

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Guest Author, Josh Hill – In his book Drive Dan Pink re-examines motivation and I believe that his findings have significant implications for education. Watch an amazingly engaging RSA Animate video that highlights Pink’s treatise here:

Pink presents comprehensive research that demonstrates that for simple straightforward tasks if, then rewards, i.e. “the dangling carrot,” work as an effective motivator, however when a task requires some conceptual creative thinking those kind of motivators don’t work. He contends that when a task requires cognitive skill the three critical factors that lead to engagement and better performance are:

  • autonomy, the desire to be self-directed;
  • mastery, the urge to get better at stuff; and
  • purpose, the yearning to make a contribution to something meaningful.

Report cards marks, gold stars, completion credits, these are the “dangling carrots” in education, and according to Pink these work just fine as motivators for mechanical skill but we are certainly not in the business of inspiring unthinking.

Today when I shared this video with middle school students our conversation provided a terrific illustration of Pink’s ideas. One student referenced “magic mess” (where a simple reward is offered to the student who cleans up a mystery mess) as an example of a dangling carrot working effectively as a motivator for mechanical skill, she noted that in fact it works quite well as students always diligently clean up the room in hopes of winning the prize. I asked her if she thought the same type of motivator would inspire her class to successfully write a poem, uncover a scientific truth, or compose a symphony. She shook her head “no”, these she said needed to be taken up with “passion”.

So how do we provide students with autonomy, mastery and purpose? In my next post I will try to draw a parallel between these factors of motivation and authentic instruction.

So does any of this really surprise you?

Dan Pink’s work came as a significant departure from the traditional motivational scheme of the business world, where higher pay is thought to translate into better performance. But who among us believes that report cards serve as an effective motivator? Where have you seen students exhibit real drive? What do you think are the hallmarks of student motivation?  How do we leverage the concepts of autonomy, mastery and purpose to motivate students? I look forward to your thoughts.

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4 comments on “Forget the Carrot: The not so surprising truth about what does and doesn’t motivate students.

  1. I think these motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose apply to all aspects of citizenship and community participation too. Not just the classroom, important as that is.

    There has to be a creative effort made to make these concepts work. The rewards have to be intrinsic abut recognition from peers is part of it don’t you think?

    • I absolutely agree Ken, a key component to purpose in particular is having an authentic audience. It is interesting to consider how intrinsic motivation for actions of citizenship is developed. I wonder if people/children are first motivated to do a good deed by an extrinsic reward and then learn to enjoy the intrinsic benefits, or if, like you suggest, the social recognition (which is extrinsic) is so intermingled with intrinsic motivation that it is the key factor in citizenship?

  2. Great to see these things being considered and on the radar of the schools there. (Sadly we have moved from RVSD), but I’m still happy to see the progress you guys are making. A good resource for teaching intrinsic motivation is the work from the folks at 6 Seconds. Years ago they developed a curriculum called Self Science which they used in the Nueva School in California (for gifted kids). It has since evolved over time and they have lots of resources for developing these kinds of social/emotional skills.

  3. Pingback: Enough about what we shouldn’t be doing already…. Dream a little dream with me! : The Power to Enrich

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