Create a List

List Name

Rename this List
Save to
Back to the Top Teaching Blog
September 23, 2011 Rethinking Motivation for the 2011–2012 School Year — Thanks Daniel Pink! Part Two By Stacey Burt

    “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

                 —Albert Einstein

    Welcome back for the second part of my two-part series on motivating students this school year and beyond. The picture to the right shows my homeroom students the first week of school. I am amazed by the expressions of determination on their faces every time I look at this photograph. In fact, I had the picture enlarged to a four-foot by three-foot poster and hung it outside our classroom door as a reminder that curiosity and excitement about learning do exist, even at this age. And without vigilance and the willingness to grant them autonomy, this flame can be extinguished in an instant.


    As I discussed in the first part of this series, Daniel Pink's thoughts on motivation really speak to me, both as an educator, trying to provide the optimal learning environment for students, and as a mother, devoted to developing my child's full potential. His straightforward logic is supported by years of research in psychology, sociology, and economics. His theory on what motivates us centers on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I'm going to focus on these three components of motivation for the conclusion of this series.

    Autonomy. Simple enough, but when autonomy is allowed in the classroom, it leads to a level of mastery that worksheets, textbooks, and lectures cannot match. Giving students some choice in the manner in which they pursue topics is liberating. I can remember the first semester of high school when I got to choose the science and math courses I wanted to take. It was at that precise moment that I felt ownership of my own education. It was finally about me. Perhaps that is why I adored college so much. Finding ways to give students the opportunity to study what they are passionate about can be the most ridiculous hurdle we have to jump as educators. However, I believe it can be done. As I mentioned last time, choosing a few class periods a quarter may be tricky, but if the students are given the chance, I believe the teacher will see amazing results. Early in the year my students and I had a Socratic seminar involving this idea of autonomy in learning. My 6th graders can’t wait to have their FedEx time. They get it.

    Pink maintains that sparking a child’s passion by giving them the opportunity to dig in and study it naturally leads to engagement. And engagement leads to the desire to get better and better at something — to achieve mastery. I have seen this numerous times in my classroom and in my own life. Many times when I am truly focused on a task I enjoy, I lose track of time and truly find myself living in the moment. Surprisingly, or maybe not, most of these experiences have happened at work or while doing tasks related to teaching. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychology professor, calls this state of mind "flow."

    Finally, Pink discusses the final piece to motivation: purpose. He asserts that in the workplace, “autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels and that those who do so in service of some greater objective can achieve even more.” I believe this translates very directly to teachers and classrooms as well. When our students see a greater purpose in what they are studying or doing in the classroom, more satisfaction and dedication to the task is automatic. Promoting service-based learning is one way to achieve this final tier of motivation. If you have students that truly want to make a difference in their school or community, they will work harder and with more focus than they ever would answering questions 12–45 in the math textbook.


    Finding a balance to do it all is the challenge for educators. I realize this, but limiting our future’s creativity and potential for the sake of better test scores is a shame. Daniel Pink’s thoughts on motivation have encouraged me to think differently about the methods I use to motivate my students. I hope that you will consider reading some of his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. You might also visit Pink's Web site, which includes interesting video clips and information about motivating people.

    Before signing off, I’d like to leave you with two more of Pink's suggestions for educators:

    Turn students into teachers

    Allow the students to teach a border topic that you are covering. As Pink states, a classroom of teachers is a classroom of learners.

    Keep a list of experts

    Survey students early about their passions and areas of expertise. Keep a list and know whom to turn to for help throughout the year or term.


    Thanks for returning for this week’s post. I hope that you will share with us any thoughts you have on motivation as it pertains to the classroom and students.

    Have a wonderful weekend.




Share your ideas about this article

My Scholastic

Susan Cheyney