Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Whose mastery, autonomy, and purpose are served by schools?

A popular TED talk features Dan Pink warning that business productivity suffers because managers remain captive to an outdated model of motivating employees with carrots and sticks. Rewards and punishments are effective, he says, but only for motivating routine mechanical tasks. Creative thinking requires more intrinsic sources of motivation. Workers who have control over their own tasks, who can see themselves improving, and who serve something bigger than themselves will be more motivated, and therefore more productive, than their counterparts who are micromanaged, are rewarded for meeting specific performance goals, and who focus on the single level at which they work.

The parallel problem exists in every classroom. Teachers are asked to motivate their students. Like the managers referred to by Pink, teachers are captive to a system of extrinsic motivators. They control nearly every aspect of a young person’s experience while at school. “This is your assigned seat, Johnny. If you sit and do your work you can join your classmates for recess. Line up to go to the restroom. You didn’t get finished so you have silent lunch. Great job, here is a smiley face. You get an A.”

It is too easy to criticize businesses and schools for the daily indignities imposed on old and young people like driving so many head of cattle – because that is how it is done. It is incumbent on us, however, to thoroughly understand something so ubiquitous. It worked in the past, Pink argues, because work was different in the past. Here’s the problem: it works now. If it didn’t, it would go away and be replaced by better motivational systems. In a Darwinian world any such system has to “pay for itself.” The only question, as the philosopher Dan Dennett frequently reminds his readers, is who (or what) benefits. Pink uses a word that captures the benefit of extrinsic motivation: if you want compliance, he says, then extrinsic motivators work very well. If you want engagement, you need intrinsic motivation. One way to look at schooling, then, is to see how we motivate students and to deduce from that what we value. We use extrinsic motivation, therefore we value compliance. That will be the subject of a future post. We will know that engagement is most important when we find that students are motivated intrinsically.

The fatal flaw in Pink’s appeal is his implied audience. He makes his pitch to managers as if it is up to them. If they would just realize what motivates people they could change something about what they do in order to get more out of their employees. The “more” they will get, however,  should not be confused with more progress toward the objectives of the manager. Managers and teachers cannot “use” intrinsic motivation as if it was an intervention to be imposed from the outside. Intrinsic motivation, by definition, emerges from individual employees or students. The manager cannot give autonomy in order for the employee to be more motivated to do the manager’s bidding. Autonomy means that the employee is free from the manager’s bidding. And what makes “purpose” motivating is when it goes beyond the narrow purposes of the manager. Even mastery is difficult for the manager to define. Improvement is motivating regardless of where one starts, and assessment of performance is likely to depend more on comparisons among peers than on standards defined from above.

Pink says he can show you that intrinsic motivation works better than extrinsic motivation. He uses the example of Google, who gives employees 20% of their time to use as they see fit. Half of Google’s great innovations, Pink says, have been hatched in that discretionary time. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are quite motivating for Google employees, but not because Google managers applied them toward their own ends. First, Google employees are compensated with stock options, which means to some extent they ARE Google. Second, the innovations they come up with are pitted against all the others come up with by their peers in a highly competitive environment. Finally, the set of people employed at Google are there because they already took initiative and stood out from those around them. They are go-getters with their own, strongly held, interests. Pink should have addressed workers, noting that in the world of tech start-ups, their interests define the company’s success.

Schools continue to impose top-down compliance because they serve their own interests, not those of their students. In the emerging technology-driven world, the interests of young people will eventually drive the goals of successful schools. This will not happen because administrators foresee it and intervene, however. It will proceed in the way of evolution, on the backs of those systems, and students, that failed.

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