Challenge Them Into Engagement

posted Mar 24, 2013, 4:05 AM by Dawn Gernhardt

After reading Part II of Daniel Pink's Drive, I’m motivated to go into the garage and dust off my copies of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Creativity that I purchased over fifteen years ago and never read! I could have likely saved myself years of time and energy.

What I appreciate even more than reading about autonomy, mastery, and purpose is the “Type I for Parents and Educators” section. The reason? All of the real-world examples I can reference. I always want to see the theory in practice. Finally, here it is. My goals for the future of education seem to align with the summary of Big Picture Learning (p. 192 to 193), Sudbury Vally School (p. 193), and Puget Sound Community School (p. 194). I cannot wait to visit their websites and find out more about how they make these autonomy-, mastery- and purpose-driven schools work. As a teacher, I love the ideas of “Having a FedEx Day” (at school and at home). I don’t know how I’d read Part II without wondering how I can transform my classroom with “autonomy over how and when to do work,” “promote mastery by offering a novel, engaging task,” and “helping students understand the purpose of the assignments.” The DIY report cards sound interesting. I wonder now how I’d handle the “I don’t know” students. I’ll give that more though. I need to be able to answer the “why am I having my students learn this?” and “how is it relevant to the world we live in now,” before I can ask them to learn. And I would like to try more of turning students into teachers (flipping the student-teacher dynamic and the classroom—maybe even having students teach each other over video). And, as a parent, I always appreciate reminders like, “give your kids an allowance and some chores—but don’t combine them.” Oops. I do that. I’m reexamining that now so that I’m not teaching my son to “convert a moral and familial obligation into just another commercial transaction.”

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose have everything to do with my practice as an educator. There are numerous ways I can use these concepts to motivate your students. Following are some ideas. As a former cubicle drone, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the autonomy of “a workplace where people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want, or don’t have to show up to the office at all. They just have to get their work done. How, when, and where is up to them.” It sounds like being a contractor, but with more security. This is most employees dream situation. How can I make my classroom more like this? I was drawn to the statement that “teams accomplished more when they focused on the work instead of someone watching over them” (p. 85). Are teachers’ use of “proximity” and “checks for understanding” more like forcing students to do something they don’t want to do and using control really due to lack of autonomy, or “acting with choice”? If “students who had greater autonomy over their course selection, their assignments, and their relations with teachers” excel, this is something I’ll strive for.

The only part of the book that was a bit more elusive for me as a teacher, were references to “mastery is pain. ” “Grit, or perseverance and passion for long-term goals” as needed in mastery. And, mastery, as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters” “hurts” it’s “not much fun” and it seems is “not for everyone.” For example, Pink gives examples of Picasso, O’Keefe, and Pollock who beat to their own drum and succeeded painting when, where, and who they wanted; however, what about all of the art that was commissioned (Michelangelo and Da Vinci), that kept artist fed? Or artists like Van Gogh who never sold what he painted while he was alive? I understand that mastery is always a goal of education. And I can help aim students towards mastery with “clear objectives, immediate feedback, discussion about their levels of engagement, finding a path towards mastery of something new and engaging that is specific to each student, make sure that students have a good match between what they must do and can do, not over-or underwhelming students, turn work into play, and learning goals instead of performance goals,” but how do I help students create an “expansive mindset” to make this all possible? I will have to cultivate the “expansive mindset” in myself, first. I did recall Picasso’s quote in relation to reading that “children careen from one flow moment to the next.” Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” How true.

Teachers are generally “purpose motivated” who need to find ways to “infuse activities with deeper, soul-stirring ideals, such as honor, truth, love, justice, and beauty.” Also, the section about meeting standards made me rethink about rubrics. What are rubrics but a “set of standards where students can check off all the boxes” (p. 139)? I need to find a way for the students to see the purpose and meaning in the assignments themselves. Not just “having goals, but having the right goals.” Additionally, as a teacher, who is “purpose-driven, and a high-attainer seeking mastery,” like all people who attain mastery or give of themselves for a greater cause, it’s a challenge to find balance, “have good relationships, and make room in their lives for love and attention and caring and empathy and the things that really count.” Is it possible to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose as a teacher, as well as teach these ideals to my students? I hope so. Being a model of this in my own life is essential. Also, working with students towards finding a “service project or 20% project” while in my class, where they can “emphasize meaning, significance, and contribute,” would be a great gift to me and to them and the world.

References: Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. Riverhead Books.