Friday, January 8, 2016


Raise your hand if you have used or seen any of the following in school: sticker chart, prize box, honor roll, attendance award, awards ceremony, grades, extra computer time, extra recess, lunch with a preferred adult, or popcorn/ice cream/pizza party. I'm sure you've interacted with a few, if not all, of these common school elements. If asked to explain why any of them are in place, you probably wouldn't get past the first couple of sentences without mentioning "motivation."
Today, I participated in a wonderful book study provided by CCRESA, a professional organization that provides a variety of supports and resources to school districts in my region. In preparation for our time together, we read the book Drive by Daniel Pink. (Do we still underline book titles on the Internet? Maybe I'm showing my age.)  This book describes and analyzes research around motivation, summarizing the three elements of it: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  You may view a 10-minute animation here if you want to gain some familiarity with Pink's premise without reading the whole book.
While I was not familiar with some of the specific examples and research referenced in the book, the concepts presented made tremendous sense to me and challenged me to think critically about the strategies we use to try to cultivate student motivation. We all experience rewards, incentives, prohibitions, and punishments in many areas of our lives, but even a brief moment of reflection will allow us to call to mind multiple instances in which we made decisions or behaved in ways that would not be predicted by the external reinforcements in place.
One way this plays out in my life is in the area of running. I started running consistently just over four years ago because I had a goal to run a half-marathon. After I achieved that goal, I felt accomplished and wanted to continue running, which I hadn't anticipated. Since then, I've set and achieved a variety of running goals, including running a marathon, and completing a 200-mile endurance relay on a team of twelve. Occasionally, friends ask me why I invest so much time, money, and effort into this hobby. Within the framework put forward by Pink, I would say I am absolutely motivated by mastery. I haven't "mastered" running by being anything close to fast, but I have achieved the various goals I've set, and now have a new one - to run 1000 miles this year. For me, mastering each of my goals keeps me motivated, and no one has to offer me money or threaten me or mark on my sticker chart to get me to do it.  In contrast, there are other activities friends and family have invested themselves in mastering that don't interest me. (I won't name them, so as not to alienate anyone by not sharing their passion.)
Turning back to the schoolhouse, if we consider these research-based elements of motivation, we have some hard questions to ask ourselves about how we can create environments and content that give students a feeling of autonomy, a desire for mastery, and sense of purpose.  Most public schools have state and local standards and requirements that would make it impossible to give students complete freedom to decide how they use their time like they do at this school, but we all have spaces of control and autonomy in which we could be as intentional as possible about designing instruction that provides some possibility of addressing the identified human needs that create motivation.