Daniel Pink on the Surprising Science of Motivation

I recently met with a PLC consisting of 3rd 4th and 5th grade teachers early in their school year. The group was struggling with two new district/building policies put in place.

First, a district policy that homework scores not count in student grades. This decision was made after the recognition that there were substantial numbers of students who failed courses but had more than passing standardized test scores.
The decision was made that grades needed to better reflect learning gains.

The second was a building recommendation from the principal that scheduled recess might not be the best use of time.
This was based on physical education being scheduled daily. The principal’s suggestion was to take recess when the teacher saw it was needed rather than a schedule that had to be met.

The teachers reported that they were stuck with the question, “How do we motivate students to do homework?”. In previous years teachers shared with students that doing their homework impacted their grades. For students not motivated by grades, staying in at recess time to do homework served as a penalty most wanted to avoid. New policies seemed to remove the carrot and stick of past practice.

My first response was to suggest that they would have to teach students the value of homework…How is homework an example of effort invested in learning and what is the payoff for that effort investment? As I began to explore the purposes of homework, the first problem emerged. Common practice among the group was that the whole class had the same homework assignment. It would be hard to imagine that there weren’t some students who didn’t need the extra practice that the assignment provided and that some probably couldn’t do the assignment without parental help (which some would get and some wouldn’t). Lots of questions then emerged for further teacher reflection and learning.

A good start may be to view the Daniel Pink TED video (below) where Pink illustrates for business leaders what the research tells us about motivation and why the carrot and stick approach is becoming increasingly less effective.

Pink provides some great experiments that illustrate that rewards were effective with simplistic, straight forward tasks that involve little creative thinking or problem solving. Rewards tend to narrow the focus and can “get in the way” of original solution generation. While “straight forward” describes some homework assignments, its not a common theme that we’d want students to internalize.

Pink presents three elements of motivation that struck me as the “payoffs” for effort I’d examine with students:

Autonomy– the ability to direct your own life- Students should find that as they work hard (effort) they get increasing autonomy….more choice. A problem in many elementary schools is that students’ choices decrease as the grade level increases so kindergarten students often have more autonomy than 5th graders.

Mastery– the desire to get better and better at something- Students need the opportunity to see that the “payoff” of effort spent on homework is increased mastery. For some students, focusing on a grade on the homework may actually get in the way of recognizing the mastery. I may get a passing grade before I’ve worked hard enough to increase mastery. Or, I may be doing the wrong homework…practicing a skill I’ve mastered and not seeing payoff.

Purpose– providing service to something larger than ourselves- Many teachers have experienced the effort that students invest when they have the opportunity to work at real life assignments that make a contribution. See the story from an earlier blog where a student’s senior project had her provide school supplies to students impacted by Katrina. She states that what started as an assignment turned into a real investment of effort.

Marv Marshall”s newsletter Promoting Responsibility & Learning #97, September 2009 has this statement from his new book, PARENTING WITHOUT STRESS: How to Raise Responsible Kids While Keeping a Life of Your Own

Carrots are no more effective than sticks for helping young people make responsible choices and become moral and ethical adults.

Marv suggested viewing Pink’s video. I’d encourage you to watch Daniel Pink’s video and see what ideas it generates for your work with teachers and students.

Here’s one that caught my attention:

Google provides employees with the autonomy to spend 20% of their work time on any project of their choice. A great start for our classrooms?What learning might my students produce with 20% of their time studying something of their choice?

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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