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Seeking Motivation? Find Purpose!

January 19, 2012 / by Sarah Brown Wessling

Sarah's Classroom

I have been enamored with Daniel Pink since the first time I heard him referenced at a conference. His recent research, found in the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has sent me into the kinds of conversations and personal reflections that have certainly influenced how I see my classroom, the culture of schools, and our profession. Even though Pink's research stems from economists, his findings are universal and can't be ignored when we think about the commodity in our classrooms.

In many fundamental ways, we've turned learning into a commodity. It plays out in the subtext of a familiar classroom ritual: Student gives teacher an assignment; teacher gives student points; student gives teacher an assignment with more writing on it; teacher gives student more points. It's a cycle we repeat over and over imagining that this distribution of points is the pinnacle of motivation for our students. And it can seem impossible to envision it differently. When students and parents have 24/7 access to web-based grade programs where points are constantly tabulated, we perpetuate our own myth of motivation.

That's not to say there isn't some truth in our myth. When we ask students to engage in discrete tasks or to complete assignments where we haven't considered the learning purpose, we unintentionally feed into the myth. But Daniel Pink offers us a platform on which to reevaluate our quintessential "carrot." He reveals (and this great RSA animation summarizes it brilliantly) that only in menial tasks will carrots or sticks (i.e., points and grades) produce a better product. Rather, he uncovers how autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to the most desirable results.

In light of Pink's work, I see my classroom through this new prism of purpose. In order to motivate students, they must have purpose, genuine purpose for learning. In the end, the points won't motivate the ones who are struggling, and if my successful students are only concerned with points, then there will always be a plateau determined by the very antithesis of learning: compliance. So, I'm striving to create that authentic purpose in both small and substantial ways. Whether it's the grant project with the community audience, the film project with mentors from the field, or the daily learning purpose on the whiteboard in my room, I'm working to motivate through authentic purpose believing that in purpose we'll find our best learning.

(In a recent professional development session, I worked with teachers to connect Dan Pink's theory about motivation to learning purpose using this graphic organizer. Click here to see what we came up with.)


Topics: Professional Learning, Motivation, Teacher Wellness

Sarah Brown Wessling

Written by Sarah Brown Wessling

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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