Dan Pink – science of motivation

What is the best way to motivate top performance? The standard practice in educational institutions – from kindergarten to graduate school – is some form of external reward: a gold star, a front row seat, an A grade, graduation cum laud or on the Honor roll.  It makes sense: those of us who have ever received any of those awards recall the joy in that sense of recognition.

On the other hand, those of us who have received several of these kinds of awards will usually say that we were not working primarily to attain the gold star.  Something about the goal already seemed important, interesting, challenging, and we were drawn in.  The A grade or front row seat was valuable because it validated our already-present sense of accomplishment.

In a lively TED talk, Dan Pink details the research showing that external motivators actually DULL performance except for the most mundane rule-structured task, and begins to explicate the intrinsic motivators which are at the heart of his upcoming book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us :

  • Autonomy, the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery, the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

It is so easy to set up a set of extrinsic motivators in designing or teaching a course. When something isn’t going well, it seems natural to sweeten the carrots or sharpen the sticks – techniques most of us have resorted to. According to Pink, these are not going to yield much reward.  That matches my classroom experience.

Unlike the extrinsic motivators, it’s a lot harder to figure out how to spark those intrinsic motivators.  Sure, we recognize them in ourselves – but how can we introduce an unsuspecting 18-year old to the joys of medieval history or calculus or economics in a way that helps her believe it matters, or design a course so that, somehow, autonomy is also built in?  What do we do to help students discover the purpose for learning these concepts and skills.  The methods, while known, are not so clear cut. They need to be internalized, not carried out mechanically.  And they need to be personalized.

The 20-minute TED talk is interesting enough in itself; I’m looking forward to reading the book when it comes out.

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