With the arrival of the New Year, many contemplate professional New Year’s resolutions, but what motivates keeping them? Generally, people want to be good at their work because it makes them feel good. Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, claims that most believe external rewards like money are what motivate people, but his research found that this is an outdated notion. 

Pink cited the example that Wikipedia which was written by volunteers and available for free outperformed the Microsoft Encarta CD encyclopedia designed by paid Microsoft employees which customers had to purchase.  Open source programs developed by volunteers for free are increasing in popularity so money isn’t always the motivating factor for production. Volunteers used their expertise on evenings and weekends to produce a product they were proud to publish.

Pink suggested that practice hasn’t caught up to what research knows regarding motivation. External motivators like incentives and penalties worked when jobs were routine.  Work that was routine, unchallenging and directed by others had managers to incentivize and monitor workers. 

This type of routine work now only comprises 30% of the job growth and is being computerized and outsourced. That means students graduating into the work force need to be able to do more complex and creative thinking to determine and solve the problems. Carrot-and-stick motivators are not effective at encouraging complex, creative thinking. 

He concluded that true motivation for the more complex thinking that most jobs now require is driven by three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. First, autonomy is the desire to be in charge of one’s own live. Mastery means wanting to make progress by enhancing skills that matter. Purpose is the yearning to do work that makes a contribution to a cause greater than one’s self. 

Teaching is complex, challenging and self-directed. Teachers don’t enter this profession because of the size of the paycheck. They enjoy the challenge of determining what to teach, how to skillfully engage students and to affect change in their learning. 

Autonomy over the task, time, team and technique helps motivate.  Teachers used to have more autonomy over their content, curricular pacing, collaborative teams as well as how material would be delivered. When district dictate most of that, teacher motivation can be detrimentally affected.  

Getting into the flow of mastery happens when the challenges are matched to ones abilities. “Goldilocks tasks” are not too hard and not too easy. Getting in the flow of  “just right” work happens more easily when three factors are in place. 

First, people need to cultivate a mindset that they have the capacity to improve their abilities. Then they need to put forth the effort required to develop them. Finally it’s helpful to acknowledge both the frustration and allure of this challenge. 

Pink encouraged educators to stop thinking of incentives and rewards as a way to change behavior. He recommended reinforcing the importance of the process rather than the product for students and teachers and warned that data-driven, evidence-based practices in the realm of motivation are unlikely to work. 

Extrinsic motivation can undermine intrinsic motivation because extrinsic motivators like incentives, can crumble intrinsic motivators such as the joy of learning. Rewards narrow focus but solutions often lie on the periphery. 

How can learners be provided with ongoing opportunities to use autonomy, mastery and purpose as a means to motivate them? 

Teachers can offer autonomy to learners with authentic opportunities to make choices of what to study and how to demonstrate understanding. Students can be introduced to the design thinking process and use it for problem solving/finding.

Some schools offer the opportunity to exercise autonomy by hosting a FedEx Day once a semester where students are given 24 hours to work on whatever they want, but they must present it to their classmates the following day. 

Another intrinsic motivator is mastery. Students and teachers generally want to get better at their work because it makes them feel good. The satisfaction of a job well done motivates, but determining what assessments best measure true competency continues to be debated as educators rethink grading systems. Carol Dweck provided evidence that pursuing learning goals can often lead to reaching performance goals, but the reverse is not true.

In order to help motivate students with purpose, teachers can engage the child’s natural curiosity by identifying why a lesson is important and connecting it to their world. Real-life examples link learning to what matters to kids. Relating social studies to more modern issues of war and political intrigue in current events can make it more relevant. 

Pink recommends that teachers focus on creating the conditions where self-directed students can flip on their own switch to learning. He also recommends that administrators create the conditions so that teachers can turn on their own motivational switch. 

Motivation is not something that one person can do for another. Motivation is an inside job that people do for themselves. May you find the motivation to complete your New Year’s resolutions.


, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at educationallyspeaking@gmail.com.

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