While I was on the TED talks circuit, I dipped into Daniel Pink’s exposition on motivation. Daniel Pink was chief speechwriter for Al Gore, and has written four books about how our relationship to our work is evolving. In his talk, he said that, while scientists have made great strides in discovering what motivates people, businesses have been busy ignoring that research, and have continued to demotivate people through their ignorance. Once again, I saw the parallels to education and politics. (You saw that coming, didn’t you?)
A classic experiment has a person either solve a problem, or receive a reward for solving that problem. The control group is told that they are being timed for solving the problem, for the purpose of establishing a standard. The reward group receives a medium reward for solving the problem quickly, and the fastest solver receives a large reward.
Seems a simple thing, right? It’s obvious that the people offered a reward would have a greater motivation to solve the problem, and would therefore solve the problem much faster than would the control group. Hold on, though. It’s not so simple, after all. The offer of a reward tends to have different effects, based on the nature of the problem.
If the problem is amenable to a straight-forward, linear solution (thinking inside the box), the reward spurs the problem solvers to go gung-ho, and they kick the control group’s butt in timed trials. However, if the problem requires an outside-the-box solution, the reward seems to gum up the works. The reward acts like blinders, keeping the problem-solvers from being able to think freely, and the reward group does no better than the control group.
The extrinsic reward actually throws a monkey wrench into the problem solving ability, by narrowing the focus of the problem solvers. An extrinsic reward, like a bonus, only works when it is given for routine work performed (as in an assembly line). That same reward offered for creative endeavors, though, adds nothing to a person’s own internal motivating factors.
What kind of motivators do work, then? Mr. Pink outlined three of them: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is the ability to set your own workplace parameters. Sometimes it is the hours you work, sometimes it is the work you do, but somehow you get to decide, at least in part, how you spend your time.
Mastery is continuing your learning to the point that you know what you are doing, and you are doing it well. Purpose is working towards a goal outside yourself; combining your skills with those of others to construct a greater good.
How do these motivators operate in education? Apparently, only in reverse. Instead of autonomy, we have rigorous school schedules, which we know are out-of-step with at least teenager’s biorhythms. We have teachers droning on at the front of the class, with all of the answers already established. Students are told that they must learn the lesson, though they have no idea of its real world application.
When they receive bonus points for answering a dozen rote problems, students kick butt and the teachers look good. When it comes to solving actual problems, though, that same reward for fast solving operates as a demotivator to thinking outside the box. Although there are exceptions, most education systems end up as great demotivating tools.
And in politics? Politicians have a lot of autonomy. Except for mandatory meetings, they come and go as they please, they set their own office hours, they have staff to field distracting phone calls and unwelcome visitors. They tend to stay in office until they have the entire routine down: who to schmooze, who to avoid, what favors to trade, how to frame a sound-bite, the whole schmiel.
And they are always working for the good of the people. Lots of autonomy, time to master the subject, a higher purpose; we couldn’t encourage these people to be more creative with our lives and our money if we had set out to do so. Would that we were so liberal with the minds of our children!
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