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'Drive' author Daniel Pink offers creative ways for educators to 'lighten their load'

In the interest of full disclosure: This item doesn’t contain so much as the pretense of objectivity. Your humble blogger is a huge Daniel Pink fan and contrived for weeks to cover his appearance.

Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, “Waiting for Superman” haters and fans alike, teachers union honchos both progressive and traditional, beleaguered principals and school board members everywhere, attend: Your load just got a lot lighter.

On Thursday, bestselling author Daniel Pink took up some of the most vexing problems in public education, applied a little of what science says about motivating workplace performance and made a couple of modest suggestions.

Those nasty, seemingly intractable debates over teacher merit pay and tenure reform? Forget pay-for-performance schemes, which aren’t likely to work. Instead, pay teachers a higher base salary, make it easier to fire bad ones and give the rest more autonomy. While you’re at it, toss out the high-stakes tests and give kids more autonomy, too.

“What we need most is engagement,” Pink told 650 school administrators, education reformers and business boosters at AchieveMpls’ annual luncheon. “The way we get to engagement is under our own steam.”

Pink’s last “real job” was working in the White House as Al Gore’s speechwriter. Since then, he has penned several books on the changing face of work, creativity and motivation. The most recent, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” has spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list.

He is also the author of “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,” “Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself,” and the only graphic novel ever to become a BusinessWeek bestseller, “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You Will Ever Need.”

Pink was a natural choice to headline this particular event. Among other initiatives, AchieveMpls works to get the Twin Cities business community -- which has a pretty compelling stake in the issue of workforce development — involved with Minneapolis Public SchoolsHis appearance was sponsored by Best Buy, which has had success using ideas like Pink’s to change the way its employees are motivated.

In Pink’s view, American education — and many of the efforts to reform it — are based on a very basic, mostly faulty premise: If you reward performance, you will get more of it; conversely, punishment will result in less of something.

This turns out to be true if the task in question is purely mechanical, but the second even rudimentary cognitive skills are required, the formula begins to fail, according to Pink. Indeed, the larger the reward, the poorer the performance, and the more creative the task, the worse the effect. 

“You’re narrowing your mind when you want an expansionist view,” he said.

From an economic and workforce-development perspective, this is a huge problem. In terms of remaining competitive in the global market, U.S. workers must deliver more than goods and services, they must deliver distinctive ones, he argues.

“As more work gets ‘offshored,’ we’re going to have to think more like artists,” Pink said. “As more of us do work more akin to artists, we’re bumping up against the fact that traditional motivators are increasingly failing.”

What’s more, money turns out to be a surprisingly poor motivator, he said. If people in any field aren’t paid adequately or treated fairly, they won’t perform well. Once someone is paid well enough, offering them more money has little impact. This, Pink speculated, is why early studies show pay-for-performance is not very effective.

A better motivator, in Pink’s opinion, is autonomy. “If we give our teachers more autonomy, instead of more shackles, as seems to be the policy out there, I think we’d get better results,” he said. (Pink might not know it, but there’s a local education think tank that couldn’t agree more strongly.)

He bases this belief in part on results being obtained at several companies that have experimented with requiring workers to spend a certain amount of time on projects of their own creation, with just one catch: They have to share the results.

Since the 1950s, 3M has asked employees to spend 15 percent of their time this way. More famously, Google employees spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they like. Results include g-mail and Google News — intellectual property Google owns.

At a national level, education policy may be marching in the wrong direction. “Schools are increasingly about routines, right answers and standardization,” he said. “Are we going to prepare kids for their futures, or for my past?”

But if Minnesota educators chose to break ranks, the state is uniquely positioned to make this paradigm shift. “This community can do this better than others,” Pink said. “You have an enormous tradition of creativity from the arts community, and a tradition of non-ideological problem-solving.”

(Intrigued? Similar themes make up a presentation Pink made at the idea forum TED, whose archives can be streamed online.)

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Comments (3)

I frequently assign classes of future and current teachers to read about and discuss research on motivating students. This is one of the clearest summaries of the research, which is often hidden and somewhat difficult to understand. Thank you.

The emphasis on high-stakes testing appears to be designed to make children hate learning and to reinforce the strain of American culture that says that education is solely for job training.

As such, high-stakes testing reminds me of the scene in Alduous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the Epsilon children (the one's ranked lowest on the social scale) are given aversion therapy to make them avoid books and flowers.

When I was a college instructor, teaching a foreign language, I learned that motivations are as individual as students. Some students responded to autonomy, some to humor. Others showed increased motivation after unannounced awards for the students most improved since midterms. Often I hit upon the key to a student's motivation purely by accident.

The most surprising turnaround came from a young man who seemed excessively laid back and apathetic about everything. However, a semester abroad somehow touched something deep within him, and he became fascinated with and proficient in the language, so much so that he now teaches it on the high school level.

The one thing that never worked was mindless drilling--unless it was disguised as a game.

I use a lot of Dan Pinks thoughts to form a basis for the “Motivate, Manage & Engage” workshops I do for teachers.

For Me, Dan has been able to verbalise what so many teachers intuitively know but can't quite grasp. I love watching the lights go on as I explain why they themselves are struggling with motivation and once they grasp that they can take steps to motivate their students.

Any input that Dan Pink can have into education would only be a good one.

Really looking forward to meeting him in Sydney this week.