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Was I Better Today Than I Was Yesterday?

2010 September 16
by Hélène Martin

The recent start of school has had me thinking about what motivates us to perform our best.  I’ve been pondering about it in two contexts — obviously in how to help my students achieve but also in considering my motivators as an instructor and processing recent conversations about teacher evaluation reform.  As luck would have it, Russ Roberts of EconTalk recently released a podcast conversation with Dan Pink about drive, motivation and incentives.

Pink’s argument is that autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose are the strongest motivators for knowledge workers.  I certainly agree that work that encourages self-improvement towards mastery is extremely rewarding.  In fact, a recently published Harvard study found that progress towards a goal was the strongest motivating and mood-elevating factor for workers.  I found this chart pretty interesting:

What happens on a great work day?

From Harvard Business Review

Feeling like progress is being made and mastery is being achieved is important, but only as long as the purpose for that progress and mastery is clear and makes sense.  Knowing what I’m aiming for is extremely important for my job satisfaction.

Autonomy is the one factor I have most difficulty with.  I tend to find complete autonomy anxiety-inducing because it often comes without a clear sense of purpose and makes progress more difficult to achieve.  What I do agree with is that autonomy in work process is very important — as long as I reach the intended purpose and consistently make progress, I should have some control over how I get there.  To me, a sense of control and predictability are what really matter related to autonomy.  Can I set some of the details of how I reach my goals?  Do I know what reactions and side-effects to expect when I do a certain thing?

In the podcast, management was discussed as a technology used for obtaining compliance in the workplace.  While compliance makes sense in, say, a manufacturing setting, it’s not really the right thing to aim for in jobs where creativity is important.  Instead, Pink argues, engagement is the right thing to aim for.  As students and teachers, aren’t we the ultimate knowledge workers?  Are we being optimally engaged?


If autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose are indeed the most important factors for motivating knowledge workers, then I understand why so many of us teachers have a mixed relationship with our jobs.  Clearly, the sense of purpose is there — is there a more motivating endeavor than to open doors for young people by exposing them to ideas they might not come in contact with otherwise?  Unfortunately, teaching involves participating in an ecosystem plagued by all sorts of strange surprises that have nothing to do with educating kids.

Teacher assessment has recently received significant media attention and I think it’s interesting to think about within this context of motivation.  Naively, I used to think standardized end of course assessments were a great idea and should in fact be motivating to instructors.  Isn’t it a great way to feel like progress is being made and mastery being achieved?  Wouldn’t it give me something concrete to strive for?  The problem is with control, though.  It becomes increasingly evident with each week of teaching that as teachers, we can affect a lot of things, but standardized test scores are a bit of a long shot, especially in high school when study habits are engrained, students have stressors outside the classroom, many are burned out on exams and we have no control over the students who walk in the door.  So instead of being a source of motivation, I can imagine these kinds of exams causing a sense of helplessness, which is not a great way to motivate a work force.  That said, I’m not entirely satisfied with my current sense of purpose.  What are my goals?  How do I know I’m making progress?  What does success look like?

Similarly, scripted or heavily guided curriculum has become a point of contention in my district and others nearby and I struggle with how that fits in with this model of motivation.  On one hand, having a strict curriculum can help give a sense of clear purpose but on the other, autonomy takes a huge hit.  I personally have felt very grateful for the freedom I have in shaping the computer science courses I teach but really, I’m happiest teaching the courses for which I do have highly-structured, near-scripted curriculum.  AP computer science is a very satisfying course for me in large part because I’ve seen a great model for how to teach it and can reuse existing materials.  I can focus on my delivery and on supporting students with the problems they face knowing that the material I’m teaching has worked for thousands of students at the University of Washington.  I also have a clear goal: preparing students for the AP exam and for a second semester college computer science course.  Is prescribing curriculum such a bad thing or is the fact that I chose the model I’m following rather than having it be imposed an important factor in my motivation?

The podcast also discussed financial motivators and one thing really stood out to me: research has shown that bonuses, if they’re too small, can in fact act as de-motivators.  I had the opportunity to experience this first-hand when my district recently proposed an incentive program that would have given me all of $400 extra per year for enrollment in a complex evaluation program.  For the sacrifices they were asking for, the thought of such small pay was depressing — I’ve made that in a day as a consultant.  I think teachers in general are not terribly motivated by money so to offer a ceremonial amount is a total turn-off.  Instead, offer us more collaboration time, a lighter course load or a longer lunch break!  It was a relief when that proposal was taken off the table.

Ultimately, I think what really takes a toll on a lot of us is the sense of lack of control and frequent unpredictability.  Will I have a computer account for the first month of school?  Will a meeting be spontaneously scheduled tomorrow when I set a medical appointment?  Will the bell scheduled be changed with a day of notice?  Will a student with no background or severe learning disabilities be placed in my advanced class?  Will I have to go two months without pay as HR scrambles to register new employees?  Will my administrator come in for one of two yearly evaluations during a chaotic day?  Will one of my students have a horrible experience at home and throw off the class atmosphere?  Will my teaching assignment be changed three days before the start of school?  Will the school be out of paper for weeks on end?  Will I ever get funding for X, Y and Z?  We just don’t know, we know it affects our students’ learning, but there’s nothing we can do about it.  How can we possibly be motivated to do our best when all kinds of things beyond our control keep on happening?

Recently, Scott McLeod, a professor of educational administration and thought-provoking blogger, had a series of guest posts on what teachers need from their administrators.  My answer: predictability.


In my book, students are the ultimate knowledge workers and I’m convinced autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose are in fact important for them as well.  When I’m in the position of being a student, I know that mastery is what most motivates me and that conversely I’m most frustrated when I have to do busy work or just don’t feel like I’m making progress.  True learning is clearly something we’re wired to enjoy!  When I look at my students who ‘don’t like school’ or ‘don’t do school,’ more often than not it has more to do with the fact that they’re not learning.  In some cases it’s because they’re just so behind that they can’t keep up but just as often it’s that they’re too advanced for the course work.  I believe in the zone of proximal development but is it realistic to expect that 30 developmentally different brains would be operating in that sweet spot with only one instructor to mediate?  I know there are some students I’m not serving well but I just don’t have the time or energy to prepare entirely different course work for them and that’s a serious source of frustration for both sides.  I suspect the large part of the key to a motivated student is a motivated teacher.

What about a sense of purpose?  It seems important that students feel like the coursework they are doing is helping them achieve their goals.  But what’s the best way of achieving that?  Does every problem have to be tied directly to interesting problems in every day life?  My sense here is that it’s helpful AS LONG AS IT DOESN’T AFFECT MASTERY which would reduce motivation.  I teach programming in a very structured way and though no one has said it to my face, I’m sure some would call it creativity-stifling.  I do it like this because I find more students are likely to achieve mastery of the concepts and to reach a state where they can be creative that way.  I compensate by being deliberate about giving examples of how the skills learned will be useful and about getting students excited about the broader computer science field.  Do I give my students enough of a sense of purpose?

I think having autonomy in that list may help explain why we have been on a continual path towards discovery learning and away from direct instruction.  Culturally we really value feeling control over what we do and I think that makes sense.  I think there are different levels of control, though.  Clearly, students need guidance to make progress towards mastery so complete autonomy for any but the most intrinsically motivated can be pretty disastrous in terms of motivation as well as learning outcomes.  My experience suggests that clear guidelines and predictable expectations and grading are strong motivators for students.  But how can I grade consistently when I do it after 8pm when I’m finally done preparing for the next day?

And in conclusion

Ah, motivation.  Having it is the most amazing high possible and lacking it can completely undermine any endeavor.  I found Pink’s characterization of what elicits it pretty useful for reasoning about my own experience.  I think morale in public education is pretty low these days with budget cuts, rampant corruption, ineffective staff, burned out students… can we bring back some control, mastery and sense of purpose?

One Response leave one →
  1. Kyle Gillette permalink
    September 17, 2010

    I know there are some students I’m not serving well but I just don’t have the time or energy to prepare entirely different course work for them and that’s a serious source of frustration for both sides. “.

    Helene, IMO you put forth more effort than the typical teacher. It would be nice to have the time to work with each student as their needs dictate.

    Consider the following: Enrollment Math teachers Ratio.
    4620 34 135
    2000 17 117
    1000 30 33

    The school listed in the middle is mine, the top school is a large LA inner-city school, and the bottom is an elite private school. Which students [dripping sarcasm] are best served? Also, to be creative, one must have mastery of the basics. Picasso had amazing sketches when he was a teenager, then he got creative.

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