Motivation for Learning: Kohn and Pink and Meyer

 I recently read three pieces addressing student motivation by authors that I follow because they each trigger my thinking with their insights and examples:

In an Education Week article , Alfie Kohn commented on the current interest in the “Marshmallow Studies” (past blog) and “Grit” (past blog ). He raised the concern that the enthusiasm for teaching self-discipline and persistence might be driven by a desire to have students be more compliant and thus successful at whatever we tell them to do.

“The more effort we devote to getting students to pay “attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming” and persist “on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration” (in the words of “grit” proponent Angela Duckworth), the less likely we are to ask whether those assignments are actually worth doing, or to rethink an arrangement where teachers mostly talk and students mostly listen”.

Kohn poses a challenging question for instructional leaders to consider. Are our energies focused on trying to fix the system (so it meets kids’ needs better) or by trying to fix the kids (so they’re more compliant and successful at whatever they’re told to do)?

That’s a great question to ponder as you hold coaching conferences with teachers and facilitate PLC conversations. How much should the teacher focus on getting the student to complete the task versus personalizing the task to something the student wants to do?

ASCD published an interview with Daniel Pink where he highlighted how “if-then” motivators, as in “If you do this, then you get that” are pretty effective for simple, short-term, algorithmic tasks: but far less effective for more complex, creative tasks.

Pink discussed the difference between compliant behavior where you’re doing what someone told you to do the way they told you to do it and engagement, where you’re doing something because you truly want to do it, because you see the virtues of doing it.

He describes compliance as being the easier outcome to reach and as the goal of management. Pink challenges us instead to lead:

“We need leaders, both in organizations and in schools, who create an atmosphere in which people have a sufficient degree of freedom; can move toward mastery on something that matters; and know why they’re doing something, not just how to do it.”

 Consider sharing that quote with staff and encouraging them to invite you to observe a learning activity in their classroom where they are working to get Pink’s description of engagement. Offer to record what you see students do and what you hear them say. (Great for reflection) How about challenging a PLC to design such a learning experience and collect the students’ observable behaviors by visiting each other’s classrooms?

Dan Meyer’s blog explores real and fake learning tasks.

He describes how assignments might connect to the real world but not be the kind of real work that people do.

“Real work – interesting work, the sort of work students might like to do later in life – involves problem formulation and question development.”


Meyer illustrates this example in another blog , Can Sports Save Math?

I’d suggest that as an instructional leader if you found these author’s thoughts triggered your thinking, the next step might be a visit to 5-10 classrooms for 10 minutes each and record just what you see the students doing and your assessment as to their levels of engagement. Consider having each member of your leadership team conduct the same task. Then convene and compare your findings. What current practices are reinforced or challenged by what you find?

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3 Responses to “ Motivation for Learning: Kohn and Pink and Meyer ”

  1. Diane Schumacher Says:

    Administrators often want conflicting results. They want collaboration and engagement. There is a lot of compromise in a group. Often what students want to learn is secondary to the process. How can students have more choice in what they are learning if they are forced to work in a group? Also, what if a student doesn’t have an interest that relates to the course?

  2. Steve barkley Says:

    Diane…you describe what are often conflicting outcomes which create the complexity of teaching…. when there are “required” courses in a student’s program my guess is that students will do what they have to easier when they are empowered to the greatest degree possible. Passion should be found somewhere in the program. Dan Meyer addresses this often with a math focus.

  3. Ronni Reed Says:

    Daniel Pink’s article definitely provoked my thinking. Having worked in a vocational setting, I have observed first hand how students become engaged when the content is something that interests them and has relevance to the career they are studying. I agree with him that without relevance or the why we need to know this, students might not really learn. Compliance means they might use it for a test and then forget it. For the brain to make sense of the content which allows them to remember something, they must make connections whether to real life problems or situations or their own experiences.

    I remember doing social studies homework with my then 13 year old niece. They were studying the constitution and the conflict between federalism and state’s rights. I became impassioned about the connection to today’s discussions in congress. I told her the same conflicts impeded congress from making decisions today. Sadly, her teacher had never had them explore this and it was an election year!

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