Thoughts on “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”


If you haven’t seen the immensely popular video yet, it’s embedded below:

And here are my stream-of-consciousness thoughts on this topic:

In schools, getting a high grade is a quantifiable demonstration of your knowledge, and is seen as validation of your ability and status. This is similar to the world of work, where making lots of money increases one’s status (or that’s how it appears, at least). In these cases, it’s the end that is the motivator, not the means.

Now, as he says, “once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward lead to poorer performance.”…which is basically every task done in school, even trades/industrial arts subjects. So external rewards aren’t a good incentive and in schools, the rewards are grades.

Now, in lieu of getting rid of grades (which would be a logistical nightmare), what can be done? He says once people don’t have to worry about money (or grades) anymore (i.e. they have the minimum amount to be comfortable), 3 factors become important: autonomy, mastery and purpose. In schools, how do these factors translate?

Autonomy – independence and self-directed work. He uses the example of Atlassian, which has the 24 hour independent project day (similar to Google’s 20% time). I think the obvious solution would be to allow children to work on independent projects, or to do independent study. For elementary aged kids, just allowing them room to explore any topic of their choosing would be good. As they students get older, you must place restrictions on what type of projects they can work on (because of the curriculum), but this still allows a lot of freedom. Here in Canada, a teacher was recently nationally recognized for her teaching and she alllows her students a whole month to work on an independent project. So using the Atlassian model (a chunk of time all at once) or the Google time (1 day a week, say) to allow students to work on their own thing might work (As for how to implement this…I don’t have much insight there)

Mastery – Students should associate the work they put in with improvement. I think this is hard to accomplish with giant packed curriculums, and can lead to learned helplessness when students don’t see the results expected, in mathematics especially. Again, I think working on independent projects would give students the opportunity to master a certain area, which may motivate them to believe in their abilities. In addition, associating the work they do with concrete results that demonstrate their mastery (i.e. better grades) could provide that extra motivation. By seeing an increase in their grades as they work (or study) harder, they become motivated to work harder; they see the result of their work. But once they do poorly on a test, there’s no motivation to learn that material anymore, since why bother learning that stuff anymore?

There’s an assessment scheme called standards-based assessment (SBA) which might help with this. In essence, there are certain standards students must reach (e.g. learn a certain concept), and students are given the opportunity to demonstrate mastery as many times as they want (if they fail a test, they get as many chances to re-take it as possible). Unfortunately in SBA, grades are still used as a motivator, but students have more opportunities to master topics (and may become more engaged in actually learning, as opposed to becoming resigned to their fate if they fail a test). In addition, this deals with the problem of grades: in a system where students are given essentially unlimited opportunities to improve, students know they can have basically the minimum grade they desire as long as they make an effort to improve, and therefore the motivation moves away from external rewards (grades) and more towards intrinsic motivation of the student. Here’s a teacher who blogs about his use of this type of grading.

Purpose – He suggests when the profit motive (i.e. grades) become the primary driver, bad things happen; there must be a greater purpose. What’s the greater purpose for learning in class? This could be partially addressed by an independent project (make something useful), or perhaps through other school-related activities, such as charity work, peer tutoring, commmunity activites, etc.

I guess, to summarize:

  • Get rid of grades as an incentive by essentially guaranteeing all students the minimum grade they desire (without telling them, of course because (i) you’d get in trouble from the administration and (ii) even though it’s been shown it’s not the best motivator, some students are still driven by grades).
  • Have two separate portions of the class: the traditional curriculum, which relies on subject mastery and testing, and a project portion, where students have the chance to work independently on projects that are meaningful to them.

This is what I got from this talk, so there may be issues and better ways to go about things, but that’s my perspective.


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