Dan Pink delivered an interesting talk on motivation and the problems associated with extrinsic motivation. According to Pink, research has shown that certain sorts of extrinsic incentives or what Pink refers to as “contingent motivators” actually dull thinking and stifle creativity. Even though the scientific research conducted over the past forty years seems to support this theory, much of the business world, on the other hand, is unwilling to incorporate these findings into the structures it uses to manage people.

According to Pink,

“What’s alarming is that our business operating system– think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources– [is] built entirely around these extrinsic motivators… [This] is actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks, but for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward and punishment approach often doesn’t work and often does harm.”

Because extrinsic rewards narrow human focus and concentration, they seem to work really well for tasks that involve a simple set of rules and a clearly defined result. But when the task involves utilizing creative thinking and complex problem solving skills, extrinsic motivation appears to hinder productivity. The problem, says Pink, is America’s economy requires the sort of problem solving skills that are based on creative thinking. In other words, today’s problems require the sort of conceptual, the sort of creative thinking that extrinsic rewards seem to hinder.

If we accept Pink’s argument, then what should businesses do? Pink suggests building a new management system based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. Moreover, this new operating system, should be based on three important psychological principles:

  1. Autonomy– The urge to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery– The desire to get better and better and something that matters
  3. Purpose– The yearning to do something in the service of something bigger than ourselves

I spent the past few days thinking about how Pink’s argument might be applied to education. I think most educators would agree that today’s educational model is based almost entirely on what Pink would call an extrinsic motivational model. Simply put, students are rewarded for good behavior and specific types of productive academic performance and punished for poor behavior and specific types of unproductive academic performance.

A potential problem with this model, at least in today’s context, is it tends to narrow the educational focus of schools to discrete and, often times, simplistic forms of learning outcomes. At a time when today’s global employers expect their employees to possess the types of problem solving skills that involve complex thinking, innovation, and creativity, our students are participating in a learning model that promotes 20th century thinking skills. Rather than learning how to effectively integrate complex pieces of information into meaningful arguments, quickly process information, or creatively solve real-world problems, too many public school students are stuck in 20th century classrooms surrounded by chalkboards, wooden desks, and unimaginative teaching. This classroom promotes a different set of life skills that may have been beneficial during the industrial age, but today’s economy demands something very different.

Perhaps what is most alarming about the learning model prevalent in most public schools is its reliance on extrinsic motivation to foster the development of 20th century skills. In the age of NCLB, schools are being forced to narrow their academic focus in order to meet the myriad of state and national accountability standards. As government accountability efforts pressure schools to demonstrate improvement, schools are tempted to rely on the types of extrinsic motivators outlined in Pink’s lecture.

If Pink is right, how might we apply his analysis to public education? I think the answer is our schools need a different educational model, a new type of management system based primarily on intrinsic motivation. This new teaching  and learning approach should emphasize a radical notion of self direction. In other words,the 21st century learning model should build effective learning experiences that incorporate student autonomy, learning mastery, and individual purpose. Learning experiences that incorporate these skills tend to foster a healthy sense of motivation and individual purpose for the learner. In a time when the extent of student apathy and disengagement seem to threaten the very success of many of our schools, a new model that promotes motivation, self-direction, and individual responsibility couldn’t come soon enough.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Student Motivation
  1. I am reading Drive by Dan Pink and always find his readings and lectures very stimulating. I agree with you that there needs to be some changes in the way we motivate today’s students. In order for them to become more self-directed, one thing that I see helping is the rise of online courses. Online education, if done properly, can foster more autonomy, mastery, and purpose among learners than do traditional classrooms. That is why I am so intrigued by the potential of online learning at all levels.

    Thanks a lot for your thought-provoking post.

  2. Randall,

    Thanks for your comments. I couldn’t agree more. Educators need to consider how they can better use technology to foster student autonomy, learning mastery, and individual purpose. It seems to me that the hybrid model presents exciting possibilities in terms of this.


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