Drive. We Need Motivation.

Note: This is the first post in a series on professional books I’ve committed myself to read over the course of the year. Twelve books–one for each month of the year–that’s my goal. This post is a short account of my impressions of the book, from an educator’s perspective.

Book # 1:  Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink.

DriveI can’t recommend this book enough. Does increased motivation sound good to you? I read this book this past January, but the topic is even more relevant now that we’re at the end of another academic year, a time educators are searching for any motivation that’s still left in them. My first exposure to the book was by means of RSA’s entertaining animation of Pink’s work. This short video addresses the main ideas covered in the book. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Right now.

This topic fascinates me, and I knew I had to read the book. It was a quick read divided into three parts: the need for a new model for motivation (section 1), the three elements of motivation (section 2), and toolkits to help you (section 3). At the end, the author even summarizes the information for you so you don’t have to. Great read.

Conventional thinking says that rewards (I could insert grades here) motivate people. Well, the truth is–not always. Here’s a quote from the book:

People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behavior, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.

The book refers to this type of “motivation” as “Motivation 2.0,” and sometime it’s effective. It really depends on the task. For routine, straight forward tasks, it works. For creative, cognitive intense tasks, the type of work that most of us (teachers) do, it has the opposite effect.

That’s right–opposite.

Using rewards to promote effectiveness on creative tasks doesn’t work. This makes me think about the recently revived discussion about teacher merit pay. “Teachers should be paid according to results,” some claim. Professor Roland Fryer from Harvard has conducted a study with over 200 public schools in New York and has found no evidence of any improvement when tying performance to pay. Here’s a quote from Dr. Fryer:

I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.

To find out more about his study, read his 2011 paper on the subject. Other studies have found similar results. Merit pay just doesn’t work.

And since rewards don’t work for the creative, cognitive work of teachers, we’d be foolish to believe they work for the intellectual work we require of students. Unfortunately, too many educators still use grades as a tool for motivating students. Pink warns us against this when he explain that

Good grades become a reward for compliance–but don’t have much to do with learning. Meanwhile, students whose grades don’t measure up often see themselves as failures and give up trying to learn.

So, what increases intrinsic motivation? What improves performance? According to the book and latest research, three things:

1. Autonomy

2. Mastery

3. Purpose

I could go on and on discussing each one of them. The book does an excellent job explaining how and why autonomy, mastery, and purpose increase motivation. For now, I just want to briefly address autonomy and purpose.

Autonomy is a huge deal in my playbook. I’m fortunate to be a teacher and to have some control over what happens in the classroom, but I know not all teachers are as lucky as I am. I can’t imagine working at a school where you’re given little to no autonomy. I completely agree with the author when he says,

Type I behavior [intrinsic motivation] emerges when people have autonomy over the four T’s:  task, their time, their technique, and their team.


Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

We need to protect teacher’s autonomy in the classroom. Better yet, we need to encourage it. Autonomy can prevent us from going crazy, and it will help us be more effective.

As far as purpose goes, we as educators should be inspired by our ability to positively impact someone’s life. What we need is constant reminders of our purpose so we can keep improving at what we do. It seems like everything surrounding us is conspiring against our focus on purpose. Purpose is extremely important if we are to stay motivated. Purpose is also a constant characteristic of excellence and innovation, and we need more of that in education. On the author’s website, I came across this excellent short video that aids in sharpening our focus on purpose.

While I really like the first question, “what is my sentence?”, I would change the second one. What about asking yourself this question every night: “What did I learn today that will make me better tomorrow?” this way the focus is on learning and improving today and tomorrow.

So, what’s your sentence?

One thought on “Drive. We Need Motivation.

  1. Thank you, Kley, for sharing your blog posts with us! I want to respond to one comment you made about merit pay. Merit pay historically was NOT tied to student assessment results. It was based on a set of professional standards that teachers used to help them establish their own goals for the year. After undergoing numerous observations from building supervisors and/or other mentors, teachers were then able to write a self-reflection explaining to what extent they were successful meeting or exceeding their goals. The merit pay scale was scaffolded to reflect success annually in meeting/exceeding goals tied to standards

    As a product of a merit pay system in my first five years of teaching, I know that I was highly motivated by the idea that excellence in teaching–and efforts to achieve excellence–was recognized and rewarded. Sadly, fewer and fewer teachers these days remember the history behind the merit pay system. Others who has received tenure in the past or had been teaching for many years before the merit pay system was instituted were sometimes unconfortable with the idea that they might lose their jobs if they were not able to show progress in teaching.

    So! I think the merit pay system–its historical roots, how it could be adapted to serve the needs of the teaching community, and ways of addressing potential challenges–ought to be revisited before being dismissed as a viable alternative.

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