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Setting the Conditions for Motivation

February 19, 2019

•  How can I motivate my students?
•  Why won’t they do their work?
•  Why won’t staff get on board with this initiative?
•  Why does she need so much oversight?
•  Why does he not seem to care about grades?
•  How can I get them to take responsibility for this project?
•  Why won’t they just do the work because it’s the right thing to do?

As educators and leaders, we have all heard these questions or thought them ourselves from time to time. I have worked with teachers and administrators from across the area, the topic of motivation surfaces time and time again. As teachers, we look for ways to motivate students to complete assignments, study for tests or do their best on state assessments. As leaders, we strive to get staff on board for initiatives or school improvement, and to embrace changes and growth in classroom practice. We often become frustrated when others don’t seem to place the same value or urgency on the work in front of them, as we do. In an attempt to dig deeper into this challenge, I’ve been studying approaches to motivation sourced from a variety fields, from education, to industry, to the Navy Seals, to see what lessons we could apply in our schools and organizations.

The book Drive by Daniel Pink is subtitled The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his book, Pink goes into detail on the history of motivation. He asserts that motivation to survive and seek safety is the original motivational drive. No external forces were needed to motivate because continuing to exist was motivation enough. He calls this Motivation 1.0. As I think about this I couldn’t help but think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how if students don’t feel physically and emotionally safe, they will do whatever is needed to meet those needs instead of focusing on the learning and tasks we set up for them. Similarly, if staff are fearful or feel their jobs are under constant threat, they will be afraid to take beneficial instructional risks.

The next version of motivation that Pink discusses is Motivation for Production or Motivation 2.0. This focuses on providing incentives for productivity and punishments for a lack of it. This is very much the “carrot and stick” approach. Pink asserts that this form of motivation was a huge success and corresponded really well with the needs of the industrial era, creating vast wealth, cities and mass-produced, high-quality products. More production earned greater rewards. Work was generally dull and repetitive and required little creativity. This form of motivation harnesses the power of narrowing our focus to achieve speed and efficiency. Pink argues, and I agree, that there is still great power in this system for certain tasks, but that the number of those tasks in our modern society is growing smaller and smaller. I believe the same can be said for our schools. Students are being asked to collaborate, create and innovate much more than in the past, and research shows that motivational tools like grades, pizza parties, movie days, and punishments, not only fail to motivate students for these 21st century tasks, they actually degrade the quality of work and can sometimes promote unethical behavior. The same can be said for our teachers. Teaching is a complex system of relationship-building, juggling competing priorities, problem-solving and innovating that bares little resemblance to the assembly line system in which Motivation 2.0 so excels.

Pink argues that the time has come for a new system of motivation. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the underpinnings of this new system which he dubs Motivation 3.0. This moves beyond carrots and sticks and seeks to foster the intrinsic side of motivation that emphasizes quality work because it is a worthy task that you value, have ownership of, and excel at.

Autonomy is the ability to have a say in your work. Pink ascertains that having ownership, or say so, is a deeply motivating factor. For students this could be choice and voice on how you show your learning, or having a say in what topic you research. This requires a teacher to have a tight hold on the skills or outcomes students need to generate but to be a bit looser on the road students take to get there, or the product to prove their mastery. Some options that promote autonomy are, choice boards, menus and project-based learning. Autonomy also has a powerful effect in motivating staff. If we give teachers the opportunity to lend their voice to how to accomplish our goals or meet our students needs, they are more likely to be invested in making that happen.

Mastery is the ability to get really good at something. The author gives an example of the motivating power of mastery in learning to play a musical instrument. People every day choose to spend time learning to play instruments that gain them no monetary value, but the reward comes from the sense of accomplishment and being able to do something better than you did yesterday. Our students and staff also can benefit from this tenet of motivation. Providing time, resources, and opportunities to learn from our mistakes and improve at a task motivates us to excel.

Purpose is the desire to make a contribution to something larger than yourself. Pink has great example from the business world about the power of this component. He relates the story of Encarta (the microsoft-created encyclopedia) vs. Wikipedia. Encarta was well funded, employed well-compensated staff, and built on a for-profit model. Wikipedia is an all-volunteer organization that relies on people to contribute their knowledge and skills for the greater good with no monetary gain. 15 years later, Encarta is gone and Wikipedia is the go to source for information about hundreds-of-thousands of topics. This same phenomenon can be seen in our schools when staff buy in to the philosophy or mission of the organization and go above and beyond to create success for students. do some of their best and most-inspired work when they are part of a team serving, or sharing with, the larger world outside of the classroom. Jocko Willink, author of Extreme Ownership and a former Navy Seal Commanding Officer, sums this up really well when he says that “Motivation is really Motive-Ation, giving people a motive for the work they are doing.”

As we look at the challenge of how to motivate our students and staff, we may realize that carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments work really well for the basic repetitive aspects of their work. However, for the complex, creative work we are asking them to do, we really cannot directly motivate them. Rather, our role is to create conditions for them to be motivated through the ownership they have, the competence they develop, and the difference they can make. this autonomy, mastery, and purpose we tap into the best instincts of these people to advance the important work of student learning.

-Jeff Janda, Teaching and Learning Coordinator