I heard a great piece on the TED Radio hour podcast yesterday about motivation and what truly motivates people. Daniel Pink described the candle experiment where people were tasked with building a candle holder using a box of tacks, a candle and matches. The subjects were asked to affix the candle onto the wall so that the wax wouldn’t drib on the floor using only those four things. One group was timed with no incentive, and the other was timed with a monetary incentive. If they were in the top 10%, they would get $5, and if they were in the top 5 people of all those tested, they got $20. Given that I am describing this, hopefully you realize that the people with no financial incentive were much faster. On average 3 minutes faster. This has been true for over 40 years of doing this experiment.
What Pink and others have described, is that any activity which requires creativity and learning of any real significance requires three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The reason that the money incentive didn’t work, was that it narrowed peoples focus and increased stress. This causes a more rigid mind to struggle with thinking outside of the normal procedures. Pink goes on to say that when people are constantly working towards mastering something, they need to have choice in the matter, and feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves. When that kind of setting is created people thrive on a creative and powerful way.
This seems like a brilliant way to to think about schools. The current model is all about “if then” statements and ultimately about control. From the bells that ring telling people when to move, to the grading system. If you do this assignment, you’ll get a grade. If you don’t, you’ll get a zero. If you do enough work when you’re told to, you’ll get a diploma. If you get your diploma, you’ll get into college. If you go to college, you’ll get a good job. I could sit here all day and find more ways we seek to control our students all day. These incentives and disincentives that are really just means of controlling them. I believe this is because controlling our students is easier than trusting them. I believe this is because there is an illusive sense of safety in control and trusting students is scary. Am I saying that we completely give up oversight and management of students? No, absolutely not, I also trust kids to be kids. That said, I do believe that our current model is fundamentally counterproductive the service of real learning. I think this idea is a critical piece that our new system needs to learn from.
How can we design spaces that allow for autonomy? I could see technology being a great piece there. What you had space for students to spend time reading interesting stories, listening to podcasts, or watching youtube and they could develop their interests that lead towards classroom discussions? What about providing students the chance to decide what kind of day they want to have? Are they morning people? Definitely not most of my students, and yet we say if you’re not at school by 7:45, you’ll get detention. What about recess? Why haven’t we figured out a recess for students of all ages? Why is recess going away at all? It seems insane to me that we are making life such a drudgery for our students, when it is clear that injecting fun the day is vital to improving the ability to work hard, be creative, and learn effectively. Why would every company from Facebook to a local company named Power Home Remodeling be so focused on their employees enjoying their work place if it wasn’t to bring the best out in people? Check out a great piece in the Washington Post about recess here. I think recess could be a lynchpin towards schools becoming exceptional places of learning.
How about mastery? I see mastery as the one we actually strive for in school, but almost never reach. This might be because of what we deem mastery to be? We often say, students will be able to…but what does mastery really look like? If we redesign the methods of assessment we can find a way towards a mastery that makes sense. If we eliminate grades, we can focus on a mastery that drives towards learning. If we remove these controls and actually discuss with our students, we can find a way to this mastery. As it stands, students essentially discuss point totals with me most days, and hold very little retention. I say this as we read stories where nearly 70% of American college Freshman need to remediate classes before they begin their General education coursework that would then lead to their Major Coursework. We need to incorporate real authentic feedback as often as we can. Our schedule needs to allow for it, our curriculum needs to be built around it, and eliminating grades is the first step towards this focus on what students know and can do, instead of the how well students play the game and work within the controls of the teacher. Right now, I’d wager the students who do the best, are the ones who “behave” inherently and have the right supports to navigate the system efficiently.
Purpose is essentially all that I have been trying to build in our new ‘non-system’ we’re building here. If we get the culture right, if we build in the community, if we are really a ‘homey’ school we can help students see their purpose. If we provide autonomy throughout their day, and we help them see the mastery they are achieving, then we can easily build that message of purpose. Because the purpose of each student is to help their peers grow and learn. When our students’ purpose lies in connecting with others, with making the world a better place, and with growing as a global community I can’t see how we’d fail in our mission.
None of these things will happen if our school is based in control. None of these things will happen if we don’t build trust into everything we do. Trust, autonomy, mastery, purpose. I can’t wait for our first day.