Daniel Pink has studied motivation in the business world for a long time and he’s come to the startling conclusion that traditional ways of motivating employees with financial incentives doesn’t work. In study after study, social scientists have found that external rewards narrow the focus and restrict possibilities, making it difficult for people to come up with creative solutions to complex problems. The only time incentives worked, in fact, was when the problem was mechanical and the path to the solution was straightforward.

Instead, companies around the world have shown that employee motivation increases when people have autonomy, a driving purpose and the desire to perfect their craft. While his TED talk is framed in the language of business, it’s easy to see the parallels in Pink’s argument to schools and learning. Teachers are preparing students for a world in which the jobs increasingly require problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Many schools are trying to mirror that sort of thinking in the classroom to give students practice confronting messy problems, but many students have very little autonomy, mastery or purpose with which to develop intrinsic motivation.

Watch Dan Pink lay out his case. How might educators interpret these findings to more effectively motivate students?


Could Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose Be the Keys to Motivating Students? 18 May,2015MindShift

  • Heike Larson

    This is precisely what I see every day in our Montessori elementary classrooms.

    Our six- to eight-year olds have a say in what they learn, and how they learn, and where they learn: they work with their teachers to craft weekly learning plans, which usually contain a mix of foundational activities (such as math facts or spelling) and other activities that interest them. My eight-year-old (2nd grade) got curious about India–and has been exploring that country in depth, making topographical maps, learning about its people, religions, and industries. She’s reading challenging materials. She’s writing, and editing her report. She is excited every morning to go to school. With their portfolios, our students can clearly see how much their learning has progressed-and improving their handwriting, or their math facts accuracy becomes a matter of pride, not of grading (no letter grades are given in Montessori). Elders (3rd graders) also thrive because they become leaders in the mixed-age classrooms. They create materials for the younger ones (e.g., recording audio books); they edit the younger one’s work; they lead discussions to solve common social problems, such as how to make lunch clean-up more efficient.

    If you want to see autonomy, mastery and purpose in action in school, I encourage you to call up a Montessori elementary school near you. Most welcome visitors. Spend an hour or two observing–and you’ll see just how engaging elementary school can be!

  • Christine Lowry

    As a long time Montessori educator, I completely agree with Heike (thank you for your comment). The ability to make sound choices, to master basic skills, to develop the executive functioning that is the foundation for independent learning, motivation, initiative, and creative problem solving begins at the early childhood level in Montessori classrooms. This is a philosophy of education that provides the model, the teaching strategies, the concrete materials and the sequenced, individualized curriculum that offers a consistent approach to learning from early childhood through high school. And yes, is a firm foundation for an adulthood that with all of the characteristics that D. Pink shares with us.

  • Since my initial comment was “Detected as spam” I’ll try it again sans links.

    Kudos to Montessori but we need to see more AMP in public education as well. In January of 2012 the students and I gave this strategy a test drive. Details: [link to Adobe Education Exchange Page]. The experiment bore unexpected fruit and AMP is now a permanent part of our student-centered, self-paced, gameful learning environment.

    To those who will undoubtably wonder, boundaries are set via ZIM (The Zone of Intrinsic Motivation) [ZIM Venn diagram] and our rubric is individualized, effort-based, and tied to the class policies and expectations. Additional details and examples of student work may be found on maclab(dot)guhsd(dot)net (scroll down)

    Note: If someone from MindShift approves my prior comment, please delete this one. Thanks!

  • Jamie W

    I am now teaching in mainstream after spending one year in Montessori education. While I try to adopt or modify some beautiful Montessori learning principles into my teaching practice, I find it extremely hard because, first, students ( predominantly from low socio-economic background) are not motivated; second, the misuse of IT, i.e. one iPad per student, poses a big hindrance for me to deliver the learning content. Helping students develop positive work habits is just so important for life- long learning. After extensive reading and reflection, I now plan to get my students to have a contract in class re IT issue. I do not expect miracle will happen overnight, but I think it is important to hold them accountable for their actions.

  • Intrinsic motivation is definitely the key to being indispensable in the 21st century digital economy. It’s not something that can be easily taught in an factory-style education system that focuses on grading and standardization. I definitely agree that Montessori is a better alternative.

  • Margi Thomas

    I have experienced amazing results when I have given my students more autonomy on a learning outcome. For example, my 9th grade English students just finished reading in groups of five different YA novels in literature circles, the project at the end was to present the essence of the book to the rest of the class. I gave them loose parameters and told them they were the experts. The results were great; one group changed the lyrics to a popular song and sang about their book, there was a power point, a play, and posters. I definitely saw the excitement from the students as they were able to choose what and how they wanted to showcase their novels.

  • Jobs in the modern workplace involve innovation, creativity, and the ability to look at a task and not only see the outcome, but also imagine different ways to achieve it. Right now the schools measure knowledge gain from one year to the next. Conversely, learners even really good ones come to school as a means to an end. It is a stepping stone to their life goals. It is essential that we bring those two values together. In fact, schools will never know the full power of their influence on the economic health of our nation until they start measuring post-graduation success.

  • Intrinsic motivation in the classroom means that the experience itself becomes a reason to continue to engage oneself. The teachers need to understand just what kind of experiences have this dynamic, Look no further than video games. It is a great eg, Some hallmarks: Challenge at the level you are at, discernible goals evident, reward comes from achieving ( not from external accolade); the practice provided is not repetitive, usually there are some variables.

    Once we better understand what is involved, we can improve our design of learning experiences in our classes. Here is a better view of that: http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/language-learning-game/

  • Yes, there are times when autonomy and intrinsic motivation can be highly powerful for learning and performance. However, Dan Pink does no research and merely interprets the research of other people frequently making inferences that are not supported by evidence. Learner engagement can follow a prescriptive formula but more often than not contextual and belief variables account for more variation in performance. If motivating learners was as simple as Pink says you wouldn’t be debating how to foster engagement. Go to the source not to the motivational gift wrapper!

    Dr. Bobby Hoffman
    University of Central Florida

  • Mindshift – let’s outline the reality here. First, Pink is neither a researcher or an educator. He has taken the work of others,
    made up generalized terms, and repacked material for public consumption. Regurgitation however is a bad strategy
    because in the process many important details are left out. His “work” actually draws on the premises of self-determination theory (SDT),
    which has been applied to education for 40 years!

    Simply, teachers should be encouraged to give up control, something that RARELY happens in the classroom. SDT theory emphasizes that
    individuals have three prominent needs that must be satisfied for optimal motivation: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence implies that individuals are energized through self-assessments and self-reflections of their personal capabilities and are confident in their own knowledge and abilities. In order to meet the need of competence, individuals must also perceive the ability to exercise free will, or autonomy, in order to demonstrate their competence. Demonstrating autonomy allows free expression of behaviors as a means for the individual to feel self-determined and not controlled by the context of their efforts. Relatedness is the tendency to seek external validation or recognition from others as the person exhibits competence by exercising autonomy.

    The real key to learning is knowing what strategies are needed to promote self-determination. Feeling self-determined and successful in executing actions is, in part, influenced by the ability to gather social support for personal effort. This means letting
    learners work collaboratively, their enthusiasm will feed off of each other fostering intrinsic motivation. However, the part missed by Pink and many other pseudo scientists is the degree of integration (sometimes referred to as “ownership,” which is tasked based. Integration has six
    different stages and can be quite complicated to explain because integration includes both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. You can check out the source by finding this article: Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78. http://dx.doi. org/10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.68.

    Otherwise, write to me at bobby.hoffman@ucf.edu or check out Motivation for Learning and Performance on Amazon for a more detailed and accurate accounting of what self-determination is all about!

    Dr. Bobby Hoffman

    • edumom

      I listened to the TED presentation while thinking about how intrinsic motivation works / could work in gifted education. I am a mother with two gifted boys. During their years in k-12 public school I noticed two issues. First, many, perhaps most, schools do not offer good gifted programming and second that gifted students are not always motivated to do what schools require them to do. In the first case, Florida state law requires districts to educate gifted kids according to their needs as identified in an EP (Educational Plan). Despite the law, the FLDOE and district administrators cannot mandate anything except what is required in only four Rules which basically state 1) EPs are to be created for each gifted student 2) teachers must obtain an endorsement within two years of teaching gifted classes 3) districts must identify gifted kids using an IQ test 4) districts must offer gifted programming. Otherwise, everything else regarding gifted education is outlined in the State Plan and Resources Guide. However, the State Plan and Resource Guide only suggests what a program should look like because the state cannot mandate most of the items that are necessary in a good gifted program. Districts are encouraged to voluntarily monitor gifted programming in individual schools. So, essentially, teachers and administrators are mostly free to do what they want. The result — mostly poor programs with student needs not met. The problem has exacerbated as high stakes testing has become more and more high stakes. Apparently, most (not all) educators are not intrinsically motivated to provide an appropriate education for gifted students or to meet these student needs. Secondly, many gifted students are not motivated in school, possibly because the educational setting is not appropriate. One technique of gifted programming is to have kids study something they love and incorporate various lessons (math, science, English, etc.) in a learning contract based on that subject. Supposedly students would be more motivated, but this technique is rarely used. When one of my sons was in 4th grade the teacher decided to let the kids do whatever they wanted and she just handed out books and told them to teach themselves math, health, science, etc. The result — the boys in the class drew Pokemon figures all day long and created a game where each boy represented an animal and made animal sounds all day. Eventually, the animal was allowed to graduate into a higher order animal and different sounds were made. One boy took the teacher’s wheeled chair and constantly zoomed around the room and drew on the board. This teacher taught the class for two years (we took our son out after one year) and after two years the FCAT scores in this class dropped so much that the B school grade dropped to a D (it was proven the drop was caused by the scores in this class where the students previously had the highest scores in the school). Non-gifted high achievers were allowed in the class and they did so poorly on the FCAT that they were not allowed to take high level classes in following years, although the school was legally required to keep the gifted in gifted classes. Apparently the students in this class were not intrinsically motivated despite the teacher giving these kids free rein. The kids seemed to need some structure. Dr. Hoffman, I would be interested to know your thoughts on these two situations.

      • You have a pretty complicated situation going on over there. There really isn’t an easy solution because teachers may have a pretty complicated situation going on over there. There really isn’t easy solution because teachers must balance their pedagogical style with the structure of the district. Yes I would tend to agree that providing choice should promote intrinsic motivation but usually guidance is also necessary so that learners meet the mandated learning objectives. It would be irrational to expect to free rein in a public education situation. I can provide you an easy answer because there are so many individual difference variables that would influence learning for your child.

    • “When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.”
      ― Anatole France (1844-1924)

      • Good one Tor. Where I come from copying is called plagiarism!

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor