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Coming up: Daniel Pink on motivation, ‘Race to Nowhere,’ and ‘Bullied’

There are three upcoming events Twin Cities education-watchers will want to take note of — but first a digression is in order.

Have you ever watched a child who can’t focus on homework for more than 15 seconds become truly absorbed by a more difficult project of his or her own conjuring? One such 8-year-old lives at my house.

Some days, neither carrot, stick nor the two in combination gets him to finish his spelling words. But good luck knocking him off task if his capacious imagination decides he should learn to quilt right now or demand a ride to the library to check out books on how ancient Egyptians made papyrus. 

The difference between the two tasks, of course, is motivation. The quest to make reeds into parchment is fueled by intrinsic motivation — the kid will stick with it strictly for the joy of discovery. Homework, on the other hand, is totally extrinsic: Do it or face consequences.

Mainstream American education is awash in extrinsic motivation these days: Think kids laboring over high-stakes tests that federal officials require states to order schools to administer. Small wonder we aren’t producing as many creative, critical thinkers as economists would like.

Author of ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’
No one has written quite so compellingly about this topic as Daniel Pink, best-selling author, most recently, of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” and the speaker at this year’s Education Partners Luncheon. The annual event is sponsored by AchieveMpls and takes place Nov. 11 from 11:30 to 1 p.m. at The Depot in downtown Minneapolis. Details can be found here.

Tickets are a spendy $100, but Pink’s thoughts on the changing world of work — and the best way to position kids to flourish in it — are inspiring. And the bulk of guests’ money goes to support the work of the nonprofit, which creates private-sector support for Minneapolis Public Schools.

The dangers of too much extrinsic pressure are also the topic of “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary that will be shown Nov. 12 at the City of Lakes Waldorf School, at 2344 Nicollet Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Tickets are $10; other details are available on the film’s website.

The work of two documentarian mothers, “Nowhere” takes a look at the intense pressures to achieve we place on kids today. High-stakes tests and hours of nightly homework may not have made America smarter or more competitive, but they have fueled an epidemic of cheating, depression, stress-related illnesses and other horrors, according to the film.

Reviews have been mixed, but two people I know who rarely agree on a lot — Minneapolis Federation of Teachers head Lynn Nordgren and Minneapolis School Board member Chris Stewart — both say it’s eye-opening. 

And as if two marquee documentaries about our broken school system aren’t enough — much-discussed “Waiting for Superman” is still showing in local theaters — the Southern Poverty Law Center will host a screening of “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History,” at 7 p.m. Nov. 9 at Minneapolis’ Central Lutheran Church.

Key figures to be present at screening
SPLC Founder Morris Dees, SPLC President Richard Cohen, and Jamie Nabozny, the student portrayed in the film, will speak at the event. Admission is free, but seating is limited so guests must register.

The synopsis from SPLC’s website: ” ‘Bullied’ chronicles the powerful story of a student from Ashland, Wis., who stood up to his anti-gay tormentors with a federal lawsuit. The suit led to a landmark decision that held school officials accountable for not stopping anti-gay bullying.

“Despite that ruling, anti-LGBT bullying continues to be a severe problem. Today, more than 80 percent of LGBT students report being harassed at school — yet schools across the country are still unwilling or afraid to address anti-gay bullying openly.”

The screening could not be more timely. Anoka-Hennepin schools have made national headlines in recent weeks following the suicides of several bullied teens, some of whom were gay. GLBT rights advocates have criticized  the district’s board for adopting a “curricular neutrality” policy that sent conflicting messages to staff and students.

Perhaps a local showing of “Bullied” will whip up a little intrinsic motivation to tackle the issue.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Larry Copes on 11/04/2010 - 09:11 am.

    I like this story about your son. Most kids are like most people in general–we can all get absorbed in something that interests us much more completely than in something we merely have to do.

    The best teachers find a way to embed the “have to do” in activities students find engaging. But it’s pretty difficult to tie the results closely to the activities, to hold teachers accountable. Unfortunately, to a casual or untrained visitor, a classroom in which kids are having fun with purpose looks a lot like a classroom in which kids are having fun with no purpose.

    In a class last night, a new teacher asked me desperately, “How do I deal with a principal who won’t let me teach in this way that engages students?” She has too little power and standing in her school for me to advise, “Educate your principal.” One reason for tenure is to allow teachers to be educators without fear of retribution.

  2. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 11/05/2010 - 05:59 am.

    Your experience is one example of what is happening throughout the country: since the ’80s–and even before that–out educational system has slowly but surely adopted the belief that ‘education’ means training people for slots (jobs) in our economy; that ‘success’ is measured in dollars and power. It uses what Friere called the ‘banking’ method: teachers make deposits and students withdraw the information as requested–hardly creative or motivating. This belief system demeans teachers, negating their professional roll while substituting an authoritarian, scripted functionality.

    Humans possess a central purpose in life. We creatively solve problems in a way that allows us to express ourselves, to pursue happiness. Through such creation we evolve—develop—as creative beings. This is the basic human need—to fulfill our creative potential in ever newer ways. We must always be able to find new possibilities for improvement and satisfaction. We must always be able to generate visions of a more desirable state than the one we are in.

    Our education system seems to have forgotten its purpose to nurture and help people develop. Instead, our school system and our society are slowly being put to the purpose of feeding the economic system. The opposite should be true: the economic system should support society and reinforce society’s goals, which means the development of individuals and their purpose, not someone else’s.

    The weblog of the Minnesota Trust Foundation, Inc.,
    explores this subject more completely, if with much more complexity.

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