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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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I had a funny evening with a couple friends the other night.  They were friends before our conversation started.  I can only hope they all are now, or, will be by the time this is Tweeted.  It started with a comment from Friend#1 that he enjoyed my tweets from a recent P.D. experience I had had.  Friend#BanSocialMedia jumped in with a “You tweet during meetings? That is rude!”  There was some silence at the table from Friend#1 and Friend#4 (a high school I.T. department teacher).  The conversation quickly lead to “Friend#BanSocialMedia”‘s expectations, complaints and comments about his students’ level of engagement in his history class.  Now let me just say, this teacher is a great teacher.  He loves his students.  He stays current.  He pushes the envelope.  He is leading the education reform movement in his school if not in his district. Sans social media technology.  He absolutely detests student cellphone use in his class.  So . . . he has procured the specifications for his own “cell-phone jammer” and is in the process of manufacturing one.

Insert laughter here.

“Instead of swimming upstream why not harness the power, knowledge and expertise that your students already have?” I asked rhetorically.  “I can teach you in five minutes how to run a cellphone, text back channel that could add in your delivery, provide by the minute feedback to you, engage your audience deeper and make you the talk of the lunch table from now until 2018!”

“Are you crazy?” was his response to me.  “Cellphones are the worst things in schools.  We banned them.  I hate them.”

From here on out Friend#1 interjected to keep the peace, Friend #4 took notes on his cellphone and the band played on.

I kinda went “soapbox” on my friend.  I asked questions like “Why are you denying me my learning?  Because of my learning style?” and “are you afraid of the feedback you will get?” and “would you take away a students pencil when he was taking notes?”  I admit, it got kind of ugly.  I finished with a statement.  “If the students are talking about what to do on the weekend, fights at lunch and who is dating who, give them something even better to text about:  Your teaching methods, your expertise and your efforts to reach them in a medium that they all get and love.  Tell them to follow your blog and follow your twitter account . . . then pump their heads full of historical fact that is more like fiction.  Give them stuff they won’t believe and then they will try to prove you wrong by doing some of their own research.  Ah . . . the old Jedi Teacher Trick, get them to learn when they think they are having fun. ”

(See Fun Theory)

I am sorry Friend#BanSocialMedia.  I went over the edge.  Please watch the video, continue your incredible work and consider buying a cellphone, engaging in some social learning yourself and with your students.  Having an experienced opinion will give you much integrity with your students.  I am sure you have taught history and World War II!  You know what “cellphone jammers” and denying the public voice pangs of.

Sorry for that last one.  I am refusing lately to take the passive way out.  Our kids, my own children are worth it.  When we refuse to meet students half way we do nothing to close the teaching – learning gap.  Instead of investing in a “cellphone jammer” why not take a leap and allow the kids to answer questions, pose arguments and ask questions via a texting back channel.  Come on . . . give it a try.  The kids are going to jam your jammer anyway.  Learning is supposed to be fun.  If we don’t make it so . . . those darned kids will!

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A friend of mine told me a story about his younger brother the other day.  His mom would point a finger and say to him “You had better behave!”  His brother would then rebut…”I am being Hav!”  To change behaviour fast. . . add a little fun.

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I have embarked on a major project as part of my NSDC Academy Class of 2011.  I am working with 20 other elementary administrators like myself in some ways and very different in some ways.  We are engaging and learning together with a critical friend from another jurisdiction on the continent.  Our critical friend is a fellow learner, administrator and a skilled facilitator of adult professional learning.  The goal of my work is to enhance, develop or initiate the facilitative leader in all of us.  We are building on leadership skills that we all have.  We are building on the facilitative skills that lie in the realm of pressure and support.  We are working in the realm of relationships and protocols for engagement.  We are working so we may harness the true power and expertise of our teachers for improved student achievement.

First things first.  I am using technology to engage with my counterparts.  Using Twitter, Blogs, YouTube, Wikis and Google proved to be far to complex for many of my colleagues.  The learning curve was simply too steep for many.  I went to the one stop shop for professional educators:  The School Improvement Networks, PD360.  This on demand professional learning experience is tailored for educators.  It combines almost all the components of the above mentioned network tools in one place.  There are limitations however.

I look forward to updating this blog entry regularly as it will serve as my journal for my work with colleagues.  So far…14 of 22 have signed in for the first time.  Not bad.  We have two different physical meetings scheduled including our first….how to….coming up soon.  In all we will be working through protocols for PLCs from the School Reform Initiative and Michael Fullan’s newest Motion Leadership.

There is work to be done.  I am doing the work alongside my friends and colleagues.  I am engaged in and implementing the learning simultaneously.  Exciting and tiring.  Our kids are worth it.

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Well I did it.  I started a Facebook page for my public school.  I don’t know whether this is a planned social experiment on my part or a new way of sending out morning announcements.  One thing is for sure though, the kids dig it! 

Here are the logistics so far.

  1. To follow the school facebook page you must send a request.  The school does not ask to be your “friend.”
  2. The school does not engage in conversations or chats.
  3. The school only sends out information that the public community would find helpful.
  4. Currently there are 27 members.  There are many suggestions of course but the school is waiting for those contacts to request access.

This is what I have noticed.  Simply by being “in the room” the content of the conversations has changed slightly;  Kinda like when the Principal is at the basketball game and everything simmers down a notch.  I think that almost every student past grade 5 may have an account.  Is it possible for the school to send information out to this “Student Learning Network” and be more effective than morning announcements?  I think it is!  I have been talking to every class about their digital footprint and their online citizenship.  Facebook is a great place for me to continue the messages.  I am very careful however.  I do not want to scare my followers off with corny messages of a kinder, gentler school and a thousand points of light like I am tempted and apt to do.  The power to use this medium for positive cultural and behavioural changes is evident.   I will continue to be very careful.

There is more to come on this front but for now I thought it necessary to mention my foray into the realm.  I have been holding out for some time.

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I just finished watching The Effective use of Consequences on my PD 360 account. This video was great as it reminded me of so many ultra-important philosophies when dealing with kids (my own included). Here are some examples:
1. Most kids would rather be seen as behaviour problems than slow learners.
2. There are no punishments, only consequences and consequences are opportunities for learning.

I found the poem below in an email one day.  The subject of the email was “do you read bad poetry”  This was a reflection activity on the relationship between consequences and punishments. After I read it I deepened my belief that we must understand the student’s perspective and stance on consequences and punishments for it to be truly reflective.  Many schools have them.  Detention rooms, Reflection rooms, Room 104, The “Thinking Room”.  What ever you might call yours I ask you, what are they for?  Who do they serve?  Is it effective or is there a better way? 

Reflection Room–author unknown
I have spent too many nights – sleepless,
fighting with you in my head.
I cannot live with it.
Yet each day that it continues
without my action condones it.
My soul hurts
for kids like Kye-
punished for who his parents are,
and where he comes from,
and because he is a bother-  to us.
Kye doesn’t get what he needs.
Kye gets what we think he needs
from our privileged position.
Kye gets our pity,
but not our compassion.
When did we forget-
what it looks like and feels like
-school for Kye?
Maybe we didn’t forget-
maybe we never knew.
When did good intentions
become a battle for control-
Us vs Them? Final SMACKDOWN!
When did being on Kye’s side
mean that I’m not on yours?
Look in the mirror-
I can’t live with the reflection. (room)

I am reminded of so many important learners that have shared their experiences and beliefs with me over the last 6 years.  Todd Whitaker’s stance on relationships and student behaviour-“they need to leave the office happy because hurt people hurt people.”  I think of Kevin Cameron’s empty vessel analogy in reference to students that need “one caring adult in their lives to make a difference.”  Ruby Payne’s work goes without mentioning a single quote just the simple idea that discipline without relationship breeds resentment.  I thought about many things when viewing this segment.  What I thought about the most though was that I wanted my boy to be loved and treated with patience and understanding when he enters school.  And that is why I will extend that same right to all the students I work with.

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