If you want to encourage students to complete a project or assignment with creativity, innovation, and passion, what's the best tool to motivate them?
a. offer a high grade
b. threaten a low grade
c. make it a competition
d. offer a gift certificate to GameStop
e. chocolate covered iPod
f. none of the above
According to Daniel Pink's latest book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the answer is f, as in fail. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that all of the above carrots and sticks actually reduce performance and undermine motivation. When it comes to tasks that require problem solving or other right brain activities, people perform best when they are given autonomy over their tasks, opportunity for mastery in their field, and a sense that the task has a clear and meaningful purpose.
Those who have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Carol Dweck's Mindset, and Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics will find much familiar, but Pink packages many of these ideas in a new, and even more useful form.
In the following video from a TED conference, Pink offers a brief and compelling overview of his argument. His emphasis here is on business, but educators wouldn't have to stretch too far to see how it applies to the classroom. However, the book does dedicate a significant number of pages directly to how we need to radically shift the way we motivate our students.
Recently, I applied this new way of motivation to my English students. Essentially I gave them some 20% time to work on any project of their choosing. I did encourage them to do something that was worth doing and had a greater purpose. Some examples of what they came up with:
- Two students, disgusted with the fact that Monterey was given an F by the American Lung Association for smoking ordinances, wrote letters to the the local newspapers here and here. Since then the Monterey City Council unanimously voted to dramatically restrict smoking in public places.
- Ten students have decided that they want to adopt a 3rd grade class at a local underfunded school and encourage them to read by giving lessons on children's books they love.
- Six students are planning a blood drive with a goal to break a school-wide record for pints donated. They're currently scheming to perform the most persuasive series of assembly announcements. Ever.
- Seven students are organizing a shoe and clothing drive for Haiti.
- Two students decided they want to be published journalists. Look for their first piece to be printed in Off 68 within a couple weeks.
- A couple students are working to build a certain Yurt.
I suppose I could have spent the past week teaching post-modern deconstructionism.