‘Mommy, I Do It Myself’ and Pink’s Motivation

Published in EducationNew.orgWe need to re-think motivation in schools as we’re too far from a system that encourages kids’ natural curiosity and desire.

A combined class of kindergartners and first-graders are working on their writing projects. At that age “writing” includes drawing. Kids cluster at little tables, intent on their “books,” burbling with pleasant chat as they work.

Then music fills the room. Barely glancing up, the kids quickly put finishing touches on their work and hand their books to the kid who will put them away. They put the crayons and pencils in a cup for the designated supplies manager to return to the shelf where it belongs. The adults back out of the way. Soon, all kids are sitting on the rug.

Oh, there’s some poking and jockeying for certain space on the rug. But no adult told them what to do, barked orders, or threatened consequences.

Dr. Martha Horn, a professor at Rhode Island College’s education department, sits facing the rug’s audience. She beams at them, not saying a word. The music stops; they hush; she starts. Incredibly efficient.

I’ll have more to say about Horn’s demonstration lesson in how to teach writing at another time.

Today, let’s think about kids who want to take care of their own business. They feel pleasure in “Mommie, I do it myself.” Learning to be autonomous is a critical skill that’s generally MIA from education at all levels. But by the end of high school, young adults need to be ready to fly solo, successfully, out in the real world. Do we plan and prepare for their autonomy? Do we ease them gradually into greater freedom and responsibility?

I’m hugely influenced by my big summer-reading find: Daniel Pink’s DRIVE. Those kids making an orderly transition under their own steam perfectly illustrated Pink’s idea of “drive” or motivation. Teaching kids to be autonomous puts the onus where it should be: on the kids.

Pink sees motivation as evolving in three stages. A business guy, he uses software metaphors. So Motivation 1.0 are the instincts to survive and be reasonably comfortable – eat, reproduce, fight, flee, belong.

Motivation 2.0 is the incentive system we know best, relying on external drivers – reward/punishment, carrot/stick, praise/humiliation, good grades/”F”s. Pink considers 2.0 to be a 19th-century human management technology, a great boon to the manufacturing economy for which America was justly famous.

Motivation 2.0 is totally useful in its place. But Pink says, “its paramount goal remains compliance, its central ethic remains control, and its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators. It presumes that to take action or move forward, we need a prod – that absent a reward or punishment, we’d remain happily and inertly in place.”

Sometimes prodding is necessary, but boy do I hate it. So do most kids, especially adolescents.

Motivation 3.0 comes from within, when we actually want to be learning, partnering, working, engaged and active.

Pink says, “I’m convinced… that our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed. Have you ever seen a six-month-old or a three-year-old who’s not curious and self-directed? I haven’t. That’s how we are out of the box. If, at age fourteen or forty-three, we’re passive and inert, that’s not because it’s our nature. It’s because something flipped our default setting.”

Go back to those 6 and 7-year-olds who, when cued by nice music, can show off what big kids they are by collaborating with each other and getting their own butts to that rug. Sure, on the front end someone had to take the time to make sure the kids could do the job. But on the back end, it saves tons of time and tsuris, and teaches autonomy.

Pink argues that all modern institutions should promote some form of 3.0 motivation to engage our best, true natures. To do so “requires resisting the temptation to control people – and instead doing everything we can to reawaken their deep-seated sense of autonomy.” And this is not “the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.”

Google, for example, asks their employees to spend 80 percent of their time doing whatever it is they were hired to do – and gives them 2.0 extrinsic rewards, money, for work that must be done. They devote the other 20 percent to whatever it is they think should be done for the company. As such, the workers feel valued. And innovation thrives.

All kids need guidance articulating their dreams, interests and values, and those should be integrated into some portion of each kid’s learning. If schools actively cultivate 3.0 motives – say for 20 percent of the students’ time – kids will eventually thirst for Calculus, History or Spanish because they’ll need those skills to get to something big they actually want.

For educators, the irony of misunderstanding motivation is that external control turns teaching and learning into work mainly for the adults. Facilitating kids’ natural urges to engage with life and learning has its challenges, to be sure. But the work is not nearly as painful as the soul-sucking chore of ragging kids into compliance with expectations. Mere compliance is a drag, and often invites rebellion.

Kids can and should learn that with all freedom comes obligation. We need to help them do the work of learning to be autonomous. Pink’s book will convince you how badly we need to re-think motivation, for kids and adults alike.

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on education and data projects. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at www.juliasteiny.com or juliasteiny@gmail.com.

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