“Drive” and Professional Learning

How can we use “Motivation 3.0” to improve teaching?

Teachers in districts around the country with revamped evaluation and compensation systems will soon be getting performance pay bonuses, checks that can amount to several thousand dollars based on their students value-added scores. Others will get “the fear of God” when their scores come back low. Will this motivate improved performance? If not, what will?

I’ve just finished Daniel Pink’s recent book DriveThe Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and its core principles immediately resonated with me. Pink synthesizes recent research that has radically changed the way scientists view motivation, particularly “carrots & sticks” (aka Motivation 2.0) vs. intrinsic motivation (aka Motivation 3.0).

This handy RSA video (~10 min) gives a nice summary of the book’s main ideas, but here is the most important punchline. When it comes to motivating performance, the carrot & stick rewards (traditional “incentives”) that are so familiar from the corporate world to behavior systems for kids, actually produce less of the desired behavior and worse performance. Huh? That finding is so counterintuitive that I’d highly recommend you to at least watch the video, if not pick up a copy of the book to read about the research for yourself. There are some important caveats. Specifically, you can enhance performance of mechanical (i.e. mindless) behaviors by using traditional punish-reward incentives. But when task become at least moderately cognitively complex, requiring any degree of problem-solving or creativity, carrots and sticks actually supress performance and gives us less of the outcomes we want. If you don’t believe me look at the examples from the video of randomized controlled studies giving students cash prizes for performance of various cognitive tasks, that found that kids without the incentives did better, and bigger incentives were even more harmful.

The book is more about business that education, but the implications are pretty obvious. The systems of performance-pay bonuses that have swept the nation’s education systems, may actually lead to worse teaching. I should clarify by the way that I have absolutely no philosophical objection to such schemes, and in general am fine with the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, principals schools etc., at least in theory, assuming they worked to improve performance. On this point I am happy to follow the evidence and whatever improves teaching and student learning is fine by me. As it turns out however, a rather large body of evidence (ironically much of it from the business world, from whom we originally imported performance pay schemes), seems to confirm that such compensation schemes don’t improve performance.

It turns this is not news either. My friend and colleague Bryan Richardson (co-founder of UPD Consulting) has blogged on this topic before herehere, andhere, and pointed out at least 3 studies on peformance pay — a Mathematica Study from Chicago, a study by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt on Nashville schools, and Roland Fryer study on a New York City initiative — all found no positive impact on teacher or student performance from financial incentives. These studies matched to the 1968 (!) finding by Frederick Herzberg that when it comes to motivation to achieve in the workplace, money doesn’t make the list. Oops!

Bryan, citing to Pink, summarizes that when it comes to more cognitively demanding tasks (like teaching) the three primary drivers are the intrinsic motivations “Autonomy (the desire to be self-directed), Mastery (the desire to get better at something), and Purpose (the desire to do something good).”

But this is not just a blog or book rehash. As those of you who know me know, the topic I’m most invested in is professional learning, and it immediately strikes me that even more than their implications for HR policy, these 3 intrinsic motivations (i.e. Motivation 3.0) determine the difference between good and bad PD. Let’s look a little at how that plays out.

Consider traditional PD, which often looks like this video.

Autonomy: The typical district (or CMO) PD session gives teachers no choice about whether they want to participate. Sometimes, but rarely are teachers given choice about what they want to learn about when they get there. The motivation that comes from making your own choices and directing your own actions is immediately killed from the second you set foot in the door. The impact is obvious from the yawns, vacant looks, people checking their phones, and conspicuous number of people late or absent. Often the conclusion we draw is that teachers are not motivated. Nope. They would be, we just killed their motivation, by forcing them to do something they didn’t find relevant. If PD attendance was voluntary and teachers (and school leaders) were given choice of topic and activity for their own learning we could learn very quickly how useful people found the PD we were providing, because they’d vote with their feet. Then we’d have to look in the mirror and figure out how to make our offerings more useful. Ideas like EdCampspersonalized PD, or even ideas like Google’s 20% time could all give more autonomy to teacher’s over their learning.

Mastery: Most people have a hobby or interest that they have pursued with vigor over time. The joy of seeing your own progress as a runner, a guitarist, or a cook, and feeling like you are really good at something encourages high levels of effort and attention. But in traditional PD teachers rarely doanything. Most often we have to listen to someone else’s ideas (which may or may not be good) and, if we are lucky, turn n’ talk to our neighbors about what he heard. Even if the presenter’s ideas were excellent, because we didn’t get to do anything, we have no opporunity to feel like we are getting better at it, to admire the work product we produce and how it is progressing, to see the increased engagement we are able to achieve with our students. This issue is intimately intertwined with the short-term, “one-off” nature of so much PD. It’s pretty hard (though possible) to get dramatically better at something complex in one sitting. So if our PD isn’t sustained over time, we are not likely to see progress, and if we don’t see progress, we don’t feel motivated by that progression toward mastery. Imagine if you had a guitar lesson once a quarter and it mostly consisted of watching a famous guitarist play, then talking to your neighbor about how you could use similar techniques to play. Without the chance to practice repeatedly over time (i.e. a 10-week cycle focused on improving questioning technique) or to refine a work product iteratively (i.e. writing and revising a lesson plan in a coached study group) you don’t get the “before and after” effect of seeing your work lead to progress. But as Pink points out, this kind of mastery-based motivation is crucial to deep conceptual understanding and critical thinking.

Purpose: Theoretically purpose would be central even to our typical PD experience. After all the point of PD is to become better teachers so we can help our students succeed. And overwhelmingly the reason that people become teachers is because they like kids and want to help them. So why does it always feel like teachers need to be forced to do PD (with door prizes for attendance, or sign-in sheets that get reported back to your principal if you skip)? One answer is the very nature of these exact incentives. Pink provides several examples where providing incentives actually kills motivation. One classic case: a study of blood donation compared rates of donation in the presence of a fee paid to would-be blood donors. The result was lower rates of blood donation. This finding has been replicated in a wide variety of contexts. The basic underlying principle is that when you pay someone to do something you send them the message that the reason they are doing it is for the money. Selling my blood at $40 a pint makes me feel like a drug addict or a high school kid desperate for cash. But giving away my blood makes me feel like a noble citizen, something like an EMT, “giving the gift of life.” By telling someone that there is an incentive attached to an activity we implicitly communicate to them that the activity is unpleasant and undesirable, and that therefore they need to be paid otherwise they would never want to do that. The same is certainly true for paying kids to do chores, as opposed to teaching them what it means to keep a clean and well-maintained home. By mandating, rewarding, and punishing around PD, districts and CMO’s communicate that teachers wouldn’t want to improve unless they were forced or paid.

I should clarify however that there is a big difference between “incentivizing” something, i.e. providing a bonus, and supporting it i.e. by providing protected time within the school day to work on professional learning, or offering funding to seek out resources to help you learn. Without support real structural barriers like not being able to take a day off or get funding to attend a great workshop interfere with the natural desire to learn and improve.

When it comes to motivation and PD, we don’t have to create it. Instead we need to stop killing it. Don’t mandate that your teachers attend X hours of PD because “your contract requires it.” Instead support teachers to do what they already want to do: get better at helping their kids.

I know I focused on what’s wrong with common PD practices. In future posts I’ll try and be a bit more constructive by pointing out ways that we can design PD experiences that tap into Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose to drive improvement in teaching.