Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can autonomy lead to success?

Update: I found this animated mind map of Daniel Pink presenting his ideas. "If you want engagement, self-direction is better." Daniel Pink  

    Earlier this year, I watched this Ted talk video in which business analyst Daniel Pink discusses motivation. His point is that the business world is not paying attention to the hard science behind motivation. Research, for 40 years (!) according to Pink, has consistently shown that traditional carrot-and-stick motivators do not work when the job requires complex, creative thought. Ever. So, why does the business world still operate this way?

     Recently, I read a related interview in which Pink makes the same points, but relates them specifically to the issues of education. He addresses teacher accountability and pay-for-performance, but of more interest to me are his points on student motivation. Pink says that if we want our students to engage in higher level thinking, creating products and synthesizing information, then we cannot rely on simple reward and punishment motivating systems. Sticker on your paper, anyone? A privilege for the table group that gets the highest score? This sort of "if...then..." classroom management is ubiquitous in elementary school classrooms. Pink says that this system relies on the assumption that students are inert, waiting passively for someone to come along and offer them a carrot...or a sticker...or an "A" even.

     Anyone who really believes students are naturally passive and inert, waiting for a carrot or stick to motivate them, has never seen a roomful of kindergarteners wiggling and dancing, touching and exploring anything within reach. They want to do things for themselves, make choices about how they spend their time, and actively help each other. We train much of this behavior out of them in the early years of school, when we should be encouraging it, cultivating and guiding their natural motivation to learn.

     Pink states that, in order for students to be motivated to complete complex and creative tasks, they need to driven by autonomy, a need for mastery, and a feeling of greater purpose. If the carrot and stick method is working in our classrooms, I think we need to be asking ourselves whether we are really expecting enough of our students. Are we asking them to synthesize information? to analyze relationships? evaluate opinions?

     I think we would see huge progress if we began offering our students their own version of “FedEx Days”. This concept would offer students pure freedom to choose a path, but require accountability to their peers at the end. They would be off to a slow start (because they would be un-learning years of compliance-based schooling) but things would fall into place after a few tries and I think teachers would be amazed at the results.

Autonomy >> intrinsic motivation >> engagement >> performance >> results.

Could you do this with your class? If you teach younger students, are you willing to begin teaching them how to use their freedom wisely, rather than training them to submit to authority?  Update: I found this  at coalcrackerclassroom about one teacher's experience with a "FedEx Day" project.  


  1. Have you seen the book "Make Just One Change?" (http://www.hepg.org/hep/book/144/MakeJustOneChange - I've had it checked out from my library for a while but haven't finished it yet... as usual) At any rate, I'm fascinated by the idea of building students' ability to ask their own questions. Your wiggling kindergarteners are asking their own questions, that's for sure.

  2. Thanks for the book suggestion. It's on my reading list, now.

  3. Dammit, you're in Texas? Any plans to move to Vancouver by any chance? I'm starting a school...

    1. Keep an eye out on the interwebs....there's others like us! I'd love to read more about your school.