Rethinking Motivation for 2011–2012 School Year — Thanks, Daniel Pink! Part One

By Stacey Burt on September 9, 2011

“The ultimate freedom for creative groups is the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Some skeptics insist that innovation is expensive. In the long run, innovation is cheap. Mediocrity is expensive — and autonomy can be the antidote.”

—Tom Kelley, General Manager, IDEO


Even as I enter my 14th year in the classroom, the beginning of the school year remains a magical time for me. I am excited by the new class roll, the challenges for the coming year, and yes, I delight in the smell of new school supplies. Each summer, I reflect on the past year and use the time off to attend professional development classes. I am constantly thinking about ways to reinvent my teaching approach to meet the needs of the next group of students.

It was during our faculty’s back-to-school retreat that the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink, was suggested as a great read for educators and parents. Being both a teacher and a mom, I picked up a copy the next day. Casually, I began to read Pink’s latest book and was so mesmerized by his thoughts and writing that I literally could not put the book down. Pink’s book has in many ways reshaped my thinking about motivation in my classroom.

I should relate that my fundamental philosophy about teaching is “the connection.” I firmly believe that if I connect with a child, I can teach anything, even math and science. I believe this to my core; however, a disturbing trend I have seen over the past five years is a lack of motivation in many students, going beyond the typical disinterest in a subject area or activity due to personal preference. So for me, Pink’s book was right on time, or more appropriately, right in time.
 
In my first two posts, I would love to pass on some of the information Daniel Pink so eloquently shares with his readers about motivating this and future generations — and the relationship I feel the book has to educators. 

Pink asserts that for numerous generations, the method for motivating students has been the "carrot and stick method," or in more terms, the “Motivation 2.0 Operating System.” Pink maintains this system is so embedded in our lives that it is difficult even to realize it’s there. The premise is basically to reward the good and punish the bad. OK, so how does that translate to the classroom? Pink believes we are “bribing students into compliance, instead of challenging them into engagement.” He states all kids begin the journey of school excited and self-directed, ready to learn, willing to be creative risk-takers. They produce work and learn without the enticement of a shiny sticker or a fancy certificate, through intrinsic motivation, ready to learn for the sake of learning. What happens to that enthusiasm?

As you begin thinking about the journey your students will make with you this year, I would like to share some interesting suggestions for educators from Drive. Pink lists ten suggestions; I would like to share four with you in this post and bring the remaining six to you next week.

Re-think homework

Pink suggests that teachers ask ourselves these questions before assigning additional practice outside of the classroom:

1.    Am I offering students any autonomy over how and when to do this work?
2.    Is the task engaging?
3.    Do the students understand the purpose of the assignment?

If the answer to any of these questions in no, we should rethink the assignment and alter it, or junk it altogether, because it is only wasting the students’ time and ours.

Have a "FedEx Day"

Give students an entire day dedicated to solving a problem or answering a question of their choice. The deal is they have to produce something tangible within 24 hours. The task could range from performing research to creating a project they must share with the rest of the class. Pink reports that companies (such as Google) are committed to this idea and relate that some of their best-known products (such as Gmail) have come from these periods of concentrated time dedicated to working on areas of individual interest. We can all spare one day every grading period to devote to giving children an authentic high-interest learning opportunity.

DIY Report Cards

Experiment with allowing the students to set goals and grade themselves. I predict the results will be that the students are much harder on themselves than you or I ever thought about being. It also provides “buy-in” for the students and accountability to the work being accomplished at school.

Offer praise . . . the right way

Plain and simple:
1.    praise the effort and strategy, not intelligence
2.    make praise specific
3.    praise in private
4.    offer praise only when there is a good reason for it

Help kids see the big picture

In this era of standardized high-stakes tests and “if-then” reward systems, kids need to understand the relevance behind what they are doing in the classroom. Give real-world examples to tie in to what they are studying. If you’re teaching scale and proportion in math class, have them build a 3-D model of their bedrooms or another room in their house. Give them a set of house plans, some stakes, and "caution" tape and have them stake out the floor plan on the playground. They have to relate to what they are learning.

I can’t wait to share more of Daniel Pink’s ideas with you next week and the implications it has had in my classroom already, just four weeks into this school year. I look forward to a great year sharing ideas and hearing from you.

 

Comments

y. Do you have any tips to help transition from the elementary school to middle school?

Perhaps the greatest tip I can give in assisting students making the transition to middle school would be organization. Additionally, I believe that giving students study skills is also essential in ensuring their success in middle grades.

Best-

Stacey

I love the Fed Ex idea! I was wondering how you set this up? Do you preapprove their inquiries first or how do you assist them?

Hi, I'm happy to find someone who has gone through the same experience I'm going through now. I have been a 5th grade teacher for 10 years until I was moved to Middle School (6,7,8th grades) Science this year. Most of the students I'm teaching now, I taught before in 5th grade, so that's funny. Do you have any tips to help transition from the elementary school to middle school? Such as mentality and so on?

Hi Amber-

I hope you're having a wonderful year so far! Going from 5th grade to teaching 6th grade was not really that different for me. I feel like my 6th graders are really just taller 5th graders, still so young in so many ways. I think that "honesty" is the big one with middle schoolers, they can spot a fake a million miles away (as most children can). Additionally, I feel that the 36 months children spend in middle school define them in so many ways for high school, college, and beyond. When you think about it, 36 months is the blink of an eye. What an incredible opportunity we have to make a difference!

All the best-

Stacey

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