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Archive for April, 2011

Talking with Daniel Pink about Motivation, Engagement and Education


On one of our snowed in nights this winter I had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Pink, author of  Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Surprisingly he was snowed in at his location in Washington D.C. as well.  For over 45 minutes Daniel, Jodie and I talked about motivation and engagement versus compliance in the educational setting.  His insights into the system of education and the connections to his research for Drive are timely and certainly transferable.

The text below is a record of that conversation presented here with Daniel’s permission.  The conversation has been edited for presentation purposes.  Thanks to Daniel Pink for his interest in sharing his thoughts, ideas and perspectives with educators.

JC: Michael Fullan is an Ontario educator and an international educational leader who works all over the globe to research and reform education. How can we continue to motivate each other by engaging with what Michael Fullan describes as our moral purpose?  We’re faced with difficult challenges and teaching is a hard job. Sometimes recharging staff morale seems to fall on a couple peoples’ shoulders. Sometimes it’s the manager’s or the coach’s shoulders. What can we do to continue to motivate each others’ moral purpose?

DP: Part of it is simply having a conversation about those topics. You very rarely hear, and this is not a slam against teachers or administrators, inside of a school building the phrase moral purpose, or even the concept of moral purpose.  The more people talk about it the more it can become part of the conversation and become salient in people’s lives.  It is also another answer to the question about how you motivate yourself, how do you motivate others?  One thing that often gets lost in the conversation is that we’re always telling teachers how to do it. Here’s what you’re supposed to teach. Here’s how you are supposed to teach it. Here’s when you are supposed to teach it. Here’s where you are supposed to teach it. But we never ask why. Why are we doing this in the first place? The why has to do with that moral purpose and what drives a lot of educators in the profession itself – is that sense of, using Michael Fullan’s phrase, moral purpose. We don’t have enough conversations about why.  That is something that the administrators can do.  Just raise that question. We’ve had a tough day, week, year, what ever – let’s not forget about why we are here in the first place. We’re here because what we do matters in the kids’ lives. We’re here because, in all of us who have chosen this profession rather than something else, we want to make a difference in the world.  It is true in the private sector as well. There is even some interesting academic research on this that shows in one example of university call centres raising money through alumni. What they do is divide people into three groups –one is a control group; one group, each night before they make calls, reads something that explains what they can learn, what the benefits are of working in a call centre. You’re learning communication skills; you’re learning negotiation skills, etc. The third group, each night before they make calls, they hear from people who benefited from the money that has been raised at this call centre. So my name is Fred and I got a scholarship because of this fund and now I’m a neuroscientist, etc. One group controls, one group is reminded of the personal benefit and one group is reminded of the purpose of the exercise. They measure the results with how much money they raise. The third group, with literally just a few minutes of a reminder of why they are doing this, raises twice the amount of money, twice the number of pledges of the other groups.  What you have here is that simply reminding people of the purpose has this profound effect on performance but also on the morale. When you get into a system that doesn’t foster that, but in fact, in some ways actively suppresses that, suffocates that, then some people exit and what’s even worse than people exiting, is that some people who don’t exit stay and become cynical.

JN: The connection and similarities between teachers and students is evident in the complexity of the “task” of learning. How do we maximize engagement across the board for all learners in a school specifically in areas of mastery, autonomy and purpose?

DP: I think a lot of it goes to autonomy. When we think about engagement, it’s sort of what we were talking about before. We start with a premise that learning goals and performance goals are the same and they are not but if you start with that premise you are going to make mistakes.  We have another premise that is erroneous which has to do with the very nature of engagement. Engagement and compliance are two very different things. And in many ways the whole idea of management, as it’s conducted in business and as it has then been imported into schools, management is about compliance.  No one is ever managed into engagement. No one is ever controlled into engagement. You engage.  I engage. My kids engage.  Human beings engage, not by being manager controlled, but by getting there under their own steam. That engagement depends on self-direction. When students engage, as I’m sure you both have seen in the classroom, they engage when they finally find a way to get there under their own steam.  If we really want engagement, we have to get rid of a lot of these very controlling mechanisms that we have.  We have to give students greater autonomy – not free reign wild kind of autonomy – but dial up some greater autonomy.  We have to give teachers greater autonomy. There are national differences here of course, but, there are policy makers out there saying that, in the States, the ideal education system is if you’re in year three class in Detroit, Michigan and a year three class in Miami Florida and a year three class in Seattle Washington, and its Math class, and its the third day of March, those teachers should be doing the exact same thing.  That’s terrifying.  It’s not giving teachers any kind of autonomy over how to do it their way, how to do the best thing, how to customize and tailor it. It is very alarming where things have gone in the United States. The good news is that the pendulum is swinging back a little bit. There are stories in today’s papers if you go online. The Washington Post has stories about our federal legislation of no child left behind and how much district principals and superintendents are pushing back on that, and you even have legislators who are involved in doing it saying “Oh my God! We made a big mistake. It’s too rigid. It’s too controlling.” The problem in education policy is that we’re looking for the silver bullet, the magic elixir and it doesn’t exist.

The door is still broken 20 years later.  Maybe that is Dad’s reminder of what it is going to take to “teach” his granddaughter Zoe to drive when he gets the chance.  When we work with other humans and we focus simply on compliance instead of engagement we are destined to drive right through the garage door.  If we want to learn we have to listen, to each other.  Motivation is a two way street and the traffic is moving fast.

Learning is a complex process no matter the context.  As Pink illustrates true motivation requires autonomy, mastery and purpose.  When talking about the complexities of learning institutions engaging and motivating the learners, “big people and little people,” cannot possibly be accomplished by a numerical equation, a secret resource or Pink’s magic elixir.  It takes highly skilled, passionate and engaged teachers dedicated to learning first with a drive that comes from a deep sense of moral purpose.

Thanks for your time and insight Daniel.  I assure you that if you are ever lost in Quebec City you’ll find your way.

carrots + sticks < love, “Click” change and Teacher / Learner by Libby Levi for opensource.com

You can follow Daniel (DP), James (JC) and Jodie (JN) on Twitter

@danpink, @cowpernius and @iteachELL

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Talking with Daniel Pink about Motivation, Engagement and Education in Two Parts. Cross posted at Connected Principals.


My wife Tricia “failed” her first driver’s test. There, the world knows. Her father had dedicated the previous few months to teach her proper. During the first lesson she, her father and younger brother got into the sky blue ’88 Caprice Classic station wagon that was parked in the two car garage.

“Place the keys in the ignition place your foot on the brake and turn the engine over.” Her father stated in his stoic and serious manner.

“But Dad, shouldn’t I. . .”

“Listen, if you want to learn you have to listen. Do not interrupt and listen. I’ll teach and you listen. Now turn the engine over. Good. Place the car in reverse and slowly take your foot off the brake.”

“Dad, when am I going to . . .”

“Tricia, you have to listen and do what I say. Don’t interrupt. I am trying to tell you, you need to listen.” The electrical engineer inside was getting the better of Dad. Learning about things like driving and electricity was not done through trial and error. This was life or death. Get it right the first time.

Tricia was making every attempt to engage with her teacher. She was instead being told to comply. Let’s face it. From the driver’s perspective learning to drive is an engaging process. From the passenger’s seat compliance seems entirely appropriate.

Until you realize you just instructed your 16 year old daughter to drive through the closed garage door. The 13 year old boy in the back seat stating that “she was trying to tell you Dad,” didn’t help.

On one of our snowed in nights this winter I had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Surprisingly he was snowed in at his location in Washington D.C. as well. For over 45 minutes Daniel, Jodie and I talked about motivation and engagement versus compliance in the educational setting. His insights into the system of education and the connections to his research for Drive are timely and certainly transferrable.

The text below is a record of that conversation presented here with Daniel’s permission. The conversation has been edited for presentation purposes. Thanks to Daniel Pink for his interest in sharing his thoughts, ideas and perspectives with educators.

JC: Variations of the carrot and stick can be seen in classrooms all over the world, certainly in North America. How can we unlearn some of these practices, practices of – to be kind of flippant about it–candy and detentions, so that kids can be motivated to learn more?

DP: For adults unlearning things is far more difficult than learning things so it’s a very tall order. One of the things that‘s happened is that we essentially created a set of assumptions that the way people, whether they are big people or little people, perform better is if you offer a reward or threaten them with a punishment. What’s disconcerting is that this is true some of the time. The danger with our kids is that if we treat them in a way that suggests that the only reason to do something is to get a good grade or to avoid a punishment we essentially sacrifice an enormous amount of talent and capability. When learning is open-ended, collaborative, when it’s about the strategy rather than the right answer then the approach is valuable in terms of helping kids think.
JC: In Ontario we have had a recent change to our report card system driven by a document called Growing Success: Assessment Practices from K-12. Learning skills are at the forefront of a child’s progress. The rest of the report card uses the traditional letter grades to rate a student’s performance. What are your thoughts on assessment, evaluation and reporting processes that happen in schools?

DP: You have to know how kids are doing. The problem is that often the assessment ends up driving everything. It basically becomes the purpose rather than feedback on the purpose and that is incredibly distorting. When you focus entirely on the performance goals, you often have a very thin, fleeting mastery of the material. It could actually be doing kids a disservice. You want to measure learning skills and you need a measure of performance. What concerns me is less grades per se than when grades basically become the goal rather than learning as the goal. If grades are the goal then people will go for the grades and may miss out on the learning. Again, I don’t think you necessarily have to get rid of grades but you have to put it into context. I don’t think there is an ideal evaluation system but before you get to the ideal evaluation system you have to go to the first principles. We are evaluating things because we want to give people feedback so that they can learn. We are not evaluating things as the end in itself.
There’s a difference between a learning goal and a performance goal. They are not the same. Our schools, especially in the States, are focused entirely on performance goals because they think that learning goals and performance goals are the same. Policy makers, even parents, haven’t reckoned with the fact that they are two very different things. I’ll give you the best example of this I can an example that you can relate to in Canada. I took French in secondary school and in university for six years. Every marking period of every semester I got an A in French. I can’t speak French. Why? The reason is I didn’t learn French; what I did is I performed on tests and quizzes. But if you throw me on the streets of Quebec City, in a French speaking part, and I get lost, I’m not going to find my way back home. If I had focused in those six years on actually trying to learn French maybe I would have gotten a B but I would probably be able to speak French. We’re obsessed over performance goals and we’re sort of thinking that if the performance goals are right then the learning goals will follow and that’s just not true. In fact, the opposite might be true. That is, if we focus on the learning goals then the performance will end up taking care of itself.

<img class=”alignnone size-full wp-image-582″ title=”carrots + sticks

JN: How do we change the minds of the students who have been going for that grade all along?

DP: It is really difficult because as an individual you are taking on an incredibly heroic and daunting task. You’re saying how can I deprogram and reprogram my 25 students, and then all the students in the school, and then all the students in Ontario. It’s a very daunting task because every other message they are getting, whether from parents, from policy makers, from the design and architecture of the school’s evaluation system itself, is telling something opposite. So you’re going up against really ferocious headwinds. The way I look at this is you’ve got to start small. Try to reach one or two kids. If you can do that, that is progress – you’ve made a difference in one or two kids’ lives. Try to reach one or two parents. Find one or two fellow educators who are with you and you have a little alliance and that’s how institutions change. That’s how society changes. We all want to be able to say “Whoa! Here we go – we’re going to change it all.” And it doesn’t work that way. It’s slow and it’s one by one. What keeps teachers going is the opportunity to affect one or two kids and to have those kids be better human beings because of their presence

To Be Continued . . .

carrots + sticks < love, “Click” change and Teacher / Learner by Libby Levi for opensource.com

You can follow Daniel (DP), James (JC) and Jodie (JN) on Twitter

@danpink, @cowpernius and @iteachELL

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