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