What Drives Us? The Surprising Secret to Building Student Motivation

During a recent discussion on The Dropout Epidemic: What We Can Do to Keep Students in School, Steven A. Levy raised the question of motivation. Pointing out Dan Pink’s research on the The Puzzle of Motivation, he unveiled an ideal framework on which to understand and apply these theories to education, driving students to continue learning, constructing their own individual paths to success. Pink outlines how our current system operates in opposition to what actually drives us to succeed, dulling thinking, and blocking creativity. He places an emphasis on three essential factors that he suggests lead to better performance and personal satisfaction.

1. Autonomy

The concept of autonomy is rooted in the desire to be self-directed, a craving common to us all. Dan Pink suggests that in order to drive people to succeed, autonomy is key. Google attempted to embrace this desire through its 80/20 rule for employees, allowing them to dedicate 80% of their time to the company, and the other 20% to personal passion projects. Although recently scrapped, the policy has urged many others to include autonomy in the workplace for idea generation. A similar concept has been applied to education, through the innovative Genius Hour movement. Through self-directed learning, students are encouraged to learn beyond the curriculum, developing their innate innovation and sparking their creativity. Adaptive technology is attempting to further embrace the autonomous nature of education by allowing students to identify gaps in their own learning, and to set personal, self-directed goals. With more power and ownership over their learning, students are engaged and motivated to reach every goal they set their minds to.

2. Mastery

We all harbour the urge to get better at what we do. We’ve seen higher education recognize the need for mastery through competency-based education, a concept that measures learning, over time. Encouraging students to demonstrate mastery of skills as opposed to memorizing and regurgitating facts, better learning ensues along with the motivation to succeed through critical thinking and innovation. Technology is making it easier to incorporate mastery in every learning environment with systems that provide personalized learning paths, and competency-based progression. By encouraging and facilitating mastery, students not only gain more satisfaction from learning, they’re motivated by the urge to improve every time.

3. Purpose

Dan Pink defines purpose as “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” He goes on to explain how within business, the minute a company loses sight of its purpose, in favour of profits, it’s destined for failure. The same can be said for our education system, which values grades over learning. Without a clear purpose in mind, learning becomes mundane, compulsory and aimless. With such emphasis on grades, students are encouraged to strive towards a number or a letter that categorizes them, allocating their place in the outside world. With a larger purpose in mind, students are motivated to strive towards success, built around personal goals and aspirations, forging their unique place in the world. Simply put: A clearer purpose means more motivation.

While Pink’s research-based assertions prove accurate within the workplace, can we apply the same theories to education? If motivating students to learn is the ultimate goal, should we not spend time analyzing what builds motivation first and foremost? As Steven A. Levy points out, as it stands, students remain under strict schedules with little or no room for autonomy, the abundance of subjects makes mastery an impossibility, and the effort that they put in has no purpose other than passing a test for its own sake. With this in mind, it’s perhaps time we found out: What drives us?

Image credits: Steven Depolo / CC BY 2.0
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