Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: Daniel Pink's "Drive"

How many of us need rules and policies to make us honest and how many of us would work hard and act honorably even without rules? Daniel Pink says 85% of us are in the latter of these groups, and yet most of us work in environments built to regulate the other 15%. What if we ditched our current system of rewards and punishments and instead provided the conditions that intrinsically motivated people need:

1. Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives
2. Mastery: the urge to make progress and get better at something that matters; and
3. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves (p. 219)

That’s essentially Pink’s argument in his book “Drive” (and in this TED talk as well). The 21st century requires creative, empowered, self-motivated thinkers, and the old way of using punishments and rewards can actually do damage when used in creative endeavors. He describes several experiments that demonstrate when participants were paid to solve a puzzle requiring outside-the-box thinking, their ability to solve it and their speed in doing so decreased dramatically. When they’d done it for intrinsic reasons, just for the joy of finding the solution, they’d performed much better. Extrinsic rewards end up turning an act of play into work.

Although he wrote this book with the business world in mind, a majority of what he has to say easily applies to education. In particular, I thought a great deal about the merit pay question, clearly a huge carrot (since the stick of closing down schools under NCLB didn’t appear to work). But according to Pink’s argument, merit pay could result in exactly the opposite of its professed goal because teaching is a creative endeavor.

Many of us, the ones who are smiling as August nears at least, enjoy teaching for the intangible rewards it brings – the joy of seeing the spark of understanding in a child, the satisfaction from hearing confidence grow, the energy from an engaging discussion with kids. This is why we teach.

Will being paid to make kids pass tests kill this joy? For many people, hasn’t it already?

How do we give teachers autonomy while allowing them to gain mastery towards the higher purpose of educating kids to be future leaders? I think it starts by taking much of the emphasis off test results. Pink says the more diverse the evaluation tools, the harder they are to subvert, so perhaps this means introducing other methods of evaluation – peer observations, student surveys, participation in leadership activities, etc.

The majority of teachers – around 85% I’d suspect – don’t need these rules and regulations. We need to spend most of our time building supportive structures to encourage these intrinsically motivated teachers to continue in the profession and not let the other 15% create the rules.

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