Drive and Education

I picked up Drive (reviewed yesterday here) hoping to learn something about how to motivate my students and myself. However, there didn’t seem to be much that was new to me. The section at the end on how teachers can motivate students was full of suggestions I’d heard before: make homework purposeful, offer specific feedback, praise effort instead of intelligence.

What surprised me as I read was that the book’s arguments struck me as much more relevant to my own situation as an employee. I thought more about Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system and the rhetoric surrounding education reform and incentives for teachers than about my students and their motivation.

Here’s a fun video that explains the main points in Drive in a way that’s quick, easy to understand, and best of all, visual.

All efforts to motivate teachers using rewards are resting on faulty assumptions about teachers, teaching, and human psychology, and Pink makes some of those assumptions clear. He cites studies that show that monetary performance rewards only work for rote, routine work that employees have no intrinsic desire to perform, like stuffing envelopes. But it’s absurd to call teaching routine work and teachers devoid of intrinsic motivation. The problem is that rewards inhibit creativity and insult altruists. Since teachers need to be creative, and are usually already intrinsically motivated by love for their students and the desire to improve their lives, rewards are counter-productive and unnecessary. Far better, as seen in the video, is to “take money off the table,” by paying everyone enough that they don’t have to worry about money. MNPS’s current proposed budget, which raises the floor on salaries to $40k, is a step in the right direction, but probably insufficient. Pink also says that organizations hoping for motivated workers should pay more than average, and MNPS also does this, paying more than surrounding districts.

Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system, which involves using student test scores, as well as observations, is a performance metric that determines tenure. Here is what Pink says about performance metrics: they should be “wide-ranging, relevant, and hard to game.” I don’t think the current system fits that description. It’s not particularly wide-ranging because it’s focused so closely on the state-mandated standardized test.  It encourages teachers to teach only on what is on the test, and doesn’t incentivize them not to give up when it’s over, with a month left of school to go. It’s only as relevant as the test itself is. Test security determines whether the tests can be gamed. And the observations are not that hard to game, because teachers usually have a general idea about when to expect even surprise visits from principals. Pink also says the gain for reaching the metric’s goals should not be too big, because that would encourage cheating, so that is an argument against pay-for-performance plans, which would reward teachers whose students do especially well.

Pink doesn’t talk a lot about penalties and punishments, but it stands to reason that they’re even more demotivating than rewards, since human psychology feels losses more keenly than gains. Teachers under threat of non-renewal or fresh-starting are bound to feel creatively inhibited, stressed, and manipulated. They probably are even more likely to cheat than those tempted by big bonuses.

The one suggestion of Pink’s that might have potential to increase teachers’ already-high motivation is increasing autonomy. Pink says that workers should have control over their task, time, technique, and team. It’s not easy to imagine how teachers could enjoy all of these types of autonomy in some school environments. But we can try.

  • To increase task autonomy, teachers could have more input into teaching assignments, like which grade level and subjects they teach. Principals could also stop demanding lesson plans and other documentation from teachers.
  • It’s hardest for schools to give teachers flexibility over time. Schools have a consistent start time and end time each day, so teachers can’t work like telecommuters on their own time. But there could still be more freedom within the bounds imposed by school schedules. Teachers could decide when their free period is, instead of the master schedule, and those who choose the beginning or end of the day could be allowed to come in late or leave early. School districts could offer job-sharing and other part-time work arrangements; in a female-dominated profession, there is likely to be high demand for jobs that allow mothers to spend more time with young children.
  • The easiest way to give teachers freedom is to grant them autonomy on technique: let them teach the way they want to teach. Stop micro-managing them. Pink quotes a business leader who counsels: “Hire good people and leave them alone.”
  • Having control over your team is choosing who you work with. Teachers should sometimes be able to select their students, and always be able to freely choose which teaching teams and faculty committees to join, rather than being assigned.

How Micromanaging Educators Stifles Reform This article makes some of the same points I’ve made here: teachers need autonomy and control over the process of educating students. I’m not 100% on board with charter schools and don’t see them as the panacea that everyone pretends they are, but generally it’s great to hear how giving teachers more freedom has been working well for everyone.


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