Motivation: The Secret Behind Student Success

It’s time to give up the stickers, stars, and well-intentioned but gushing praise, says best-selling author Daniel Pink. Sound like your entire toolbox? It’s not.

A safe learning environment. An exciting lesson plan. Compassionate classmates and a dynamic and tuned-in teacher. It sounds like the perfect setup for a child's success. But every teacher knows there's one more essential-and sometimes elusive-ingredient. Motivation.

And so we make sticker charts, fill jars with jellybeans, and stock up on action-figure and sparkly-pencil prizes at the dollar store. We scour entire books devoted to the "magic words"-and we find ourselves blaming parents who aren't saying them.

While a teacher isn't the only factor playing into a child's desire to succeed-home life and individual personality play a major part-we rarely stop to think about whether we're going about it the right way. In his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that perhaps we aren't. We caught up with Pink a few weeks before the release of Drive to talk about motivation, the problem with the "carrot and stick" approach, and why it may be time to shake up the school day as we know it.

Your new book takes a hard look at the science behind motivation.
We tend to think that the way to get people to perform is to punish the bad and reward the good. There's some logic to that, but, particularly as you ask people, even kids to do more complex, creative tasks, that sort of approach, that "carrot and stick" approach, simply doesn't work and actually causes all kinds of collateral damage.

Don't we all value rewards?
What the science tells us is that contingent incentives, what I call "if-then" rewards-if you do this, then you get that-do work for simple, rule-based tasks. Routine tasks defined most of the 20th century. On the manufacturing line, gaining compliance worked just fine. But that was then.

Now we're preparing kids for the jobs of the future.

Certainly, fewer of us have jobs that involve solving very simple problems by following a set of steps and getting a right answer. The definitional tasks of 21st-century work are more complex, more creative. Solving complex problems requires an inquiring mind and the willingness to experiment one's way to a fresh solution. Where Motivation 2.0 sought compliance, Motivation 3.0 seeks engagement.

How would you define Motivation 3.0?
Our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed. Have you ever seen a 1-year-old who's not curious and self-directed? Human beings want to learn, to make choices, to achieve. If we want higher-level work, the science shows us the better way to motivation is to build more on autonomy, our desire to be self-directed; on mastery, which is our desire to get better and better at something that matters; and on purpose, which is our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.

How do rewards work against intrinsic motivation?

When you say, "If you get an A on this test, I'll give you $5," that's a colossal mistake. What that says is the only purpose of getting an A on a test is to get a reward. It extinguishes intrinsic motivation to do well; it puts the focus on getting the reward and not on the work itself.

What would you say to schools that claim to have found success by paying for grades?
In general, I opposed it, but I'm willing to reserve judgment for kids who have been so betrayed by the system, who have no real understanding of what learning is. If it takes a little bit of a bribe to get that kid to open up a book, then it's hard for me to argue that that's a bad idea. But, there's research being done in New York City and some other jurisdictions about whether those sorts of mechanisms are effective even for the most disadvantaged kids.

Can rewards ever be done well in school?
For the vast majority of kids, contingent rewards are an abject disaster. At the same time, if your students do well on a test and you say, "Hey, you really worked hard. You really learned a lot. You mastered algebra, and to celebrate, let's have a pizza party," that's really not the same thing because it's not contingent on the performance. The danger, however, is if kids begin to think of that as an entitlement and say, "Every time I do well on a test I get a pizza party."

So I think that in general, rewards should be in the form of feedback and information and, to some extent, praise. But even praise can be toxic for kids. It needs to be deployed very carefully.

What would you consider toxic praise?
Carol Dweck has done a lot of research on it. Praise is toxic when you don't give a child feedback on what he or she is doing, whether it's sports, school, or anything else, and only show a loving, praising type of attitude when they've done as well as you want them to. And so, the kid begins to say to herself, "The only reason to do well is to get praise and approval." Feedback is the way you get better at something, whether it's sports, art, or academics. If all your feedback is positive, you really don't have any sense of how you're doing.

Can you tell us a little more about Dweck's research?
Sure. She says that people essentially have two different "self theories of intelligence." In one, you look at intelligence as an entity, or fixed supply. Therefore, everything you do is a measure of how much intelligence you have. The other way to think of it is a growth theory of intelligence, which says that intelligence is not a fixed amount. It's something that you can grow and develop.

What she's found is that kids who have this entity theory of intelligence are more likely to take shortcuts like cheating or to choose easier challenges because they don't want to be "proved" to be stupid. Whereas kids who have internalized growth theory often end up being more inspired and more honest in their approach to schoolwork. They take more challenging courses and they learn "grit," the habit of persistence because they recognize that persistence is the way to get better at something.

Is it possible for teachers to change how a child views his or her own intelligence?

Dweck shows that you can actually move people from one category to another fairly quickly. It goes back to praise. If you praise somebody for getting an answer right, and you say, "Oh, you got the answer right, you're so smart," that coincides with an entity theory of intelligence.

But if you praise by saying, "Wow, you got that problem right. Show me how you did it," and the kid shows you how she did it, and then you say, "Wow, that's a great strategy for solving that," then you're demonstrating a growth theory of intelligence. So I think it's how you talk to kids, the problems that we give to kids, and even how teachers themselves behave and view the world.

In the education world, the call is growing for greater autonomy and experimentation with the learning process in schools. At the same time, there is a push toward greater regimentation.
The push toward regimentation, in my view, is far more prevalent. Yes, there are more and more innovative public and charter schools and a notable rise of homeschooling. But that said, the vast majority of kids are going to classrooms where high-stakes standardized testing sets the agenda.

Most schools are still operating on Motivation 2.0.?

Yes, and that's a problem. There's a disconnect between how we prepare kids for work and how work actually operates: In school, problems almost always are clearly defined, confined to a single discipline, and have one right answer. But in the workplace, they're practically the opposite. Problems are usually poorly defined, multidisciplinary, and have several possible answers, none of them perfect.

At the same time, there are amazing examples of innovative, inquiry-based schools out there.
Absolutely, and I talk about some of them in Drive. The Big Picture Learning high school in Providence, Rhode Island is a great example. The kids' interests dictate the curriculum. The students are assessed the way adults are-on work performance, individual presentation, effort, attitude, and behavior on the job. Big Picture kids, most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, overall completely outperform their peers on standardized tests. They end up easily outperforming their peers on language arts because they're reading and writing about subjects that are relevant to them and that they're interested in.

So it's all individualized learning for every child?

Here's an example. One student I met had a strong interest in martial arts, so they ended up building a curriculum around it. He works two days a week in a martial arts studio, so he's learning business skills. He uses martial arts in his physics and math projects. Not to mention this kid knows more about Japanese history than any non-academic Westerner I've ever met. I should say that a lot of work goes into helping students discover those "just-right" tasks, into helping them to find their paths. It's teaching of a different kind.

What about younger kids? How do we allow autonomy within reasonable learning requirements for a third grader?

Even for younger learners, the more that you break down the barriers between school and the rest of the world, the better. Everybody, little kids included, wants to work on real-world problems that are relevant. A lot of schools are doing this.

The mandate of public schools is to educate every child. Do you think an individualized program like Big Picture Learning is reproducible on a large scale?

I think that it's challenging, but not impossible. We are seeing a move now toward differentiated learning. The more we allow a kid's learning style to shape how the learning occurs, the more you're allowing that kid to be an autonomous learner.
This vision of a 21st-century education would very much change how educators work at every level.
Definitely. Perhaps it would make the jobs of teachers and of education leaders more complicated and yet more satisfying at the same time.

If you could change three things about public education tomorrow, what would they be?
Wow, that's a tough one. First, I would give teachers far greater autonomy, that is, unshackle them from standardized tests and allow them to teach what they want the way that they want. I think that would have a remarkable positive effect on 85 percent of the classrooms in this country.

The second thing would be-to the extent possible-to tear down the walls between disciplines, and between the school and the wider world. One of the strengths of primary school is that it doesn't segment math and science, and English and history.

By the time our kids get to about sixth grade, we frog-march them from one discipline to another and rarely point out the connections among those disciplines. The world itself is inherently multidisciplinary.

You have one more magic educational wish left.
The third thing would be a FedEx day-I talk about that a lot in Drive-one school day set aside for student-chosen, student-led learning projects. In advance, help them collect the tools, information, and supplies they might need. The next morning, ask them to deliver-by reporting back to the class-on their discoveries and experiences. I think the neurons would be firing so rapidly that kids might just end up producing things that would blow the socks off all the adults in the room.

5 Ideas to Help Our Kids
If we want to raise Type I kids, we need to help them move toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Here are some ways to start the journey, says Pink.

Rethink Assignments
Before assigning homework, ask yourself three questions: Am I offering students any autonomy over how and when they do it? Does this assignment promote mastery by offering an engaging task? Do my students understand the purpose of the assignment-that is, how it contributes to the larger enterprise the class is engaged in?

Try DIY Report Cards

At the beginning of the semester, ask kids to formulate their own learning goals. Then, at the end of the semester, ask kids to create their own report cards along with a 1-2 paragraph review of their progress. Once students have completed their report cards, share the teacher's report card and let the comparison of the two be the start of a conversation on how they are doing on the path to mastery.

Offer Praise the Right Way
Praise effort and strategy, not intelligence. Children who are praised for "being smart" often believe that every encounter is a test of whether they really are. Kids who understand that effort and hard work lead to mastery are often more willing to take on new or difficult tasks.

Help Kids See the Big Picture

Whatever your students are studying, be sure they can answer these questions: Why am I learning this? How is this relevant to the world I live in? Then get out of the classroom and apply what they are studying.  

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