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Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

An interesting post over on Presentation Zen about Dan Pink's TED Talk on motivation, that Garr summarizes nicely:

We don't need sweeter carrots and sharper sticks, Dan says. We need a whole new approach, an approach that puts more stock in intrinsic motivation. Dan identifies three elements that comprise a new way of thinking about management:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Traditional ideas about management are great, Dan says, "if you want compliance; but for engagement, self-direction works best."

In his talk, (which you should really watch), Dan discusses how science has demonstrated that rewards "narrow focus and restrict possibilities." As a result, when there's a defined task with a clear set of rules to follow, rewards can be a great way to get desired behaviors. But BECAUSE rewards tend to narrow our focus and restrict possibilities, in those cases where we need to "think outside the box," rewards are actually a terrible strategy to use.

Rewards actually impede our problem-solving ability because they cause us to restrict our consideration of other ideas and to focus on only one or two ways to solve the problem.  As one of the studies Dan references discovered, "once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, (my emphasis)  a larger reward led to poorer performance."

In a nutshell, rewards work for tasks where you don't have to think. As soon as you have to engage in any kind of thinking, rewards STOP WORKING.

This is something I've felt intuitively, but the science is really compelling. And the notion opens up a lot of questions for me.

  • If knowledge workers are, in fact, the new blue collar workers, then maybe the carrot/stick thing is where we should be headed. But is that really what we need to do to rebuild our economy?   For Americans (and that's the perspective from which I write), encouraging compliance and rule-following is actually the WRONG way for us to go about gaining any kind of economic growth. People who follow rules are fine when you're trying to maintain something,  but to go beyond maintenance, you need people who will ask questions and break the rules. Dan expresses concern that in rebuilding from the rubble of our economic disaster, we are doing so based on old beliefs about what works. I definitely share these concerns.
  • In the learning biz, we seem to spend a lot of time focusing on refining our carrots (HR seems to take care of the sticks.) So we think endlessly about how we can tweak our learning to make it more interesting. Can I add a game here or an activity there? Maybe some animation or a video would be a good idea.

There's no doubt that there's a need to make learning interesting. But do we end up getting lost in the weeds, worrying so much about whether or not we have the right game in place we lose sight of the fact that the learning doesn't really engage people on any of the Dan Pink's three dimensions of autonomy, mastery and purpose? Do we need to focus on something else?

  • As an instructional designer and facilitator, I find that I tend work on the kind of learning that is more likely to connect to these three dimensions--I have NO interest in doing compliance training and avoid it at all costs. I also subconsciously design training so that it emphasizes these factors. I wonder if I need to be more explicit, though, in teasing out each of these three aspects, asking myself some different design questions? And if so, what should those questions be? 
  • What other implications for learning are there in these three dimensions? For example, are there ways to tap into these even when we're designing more rule-bound compliance-focused kinds of training?

Dan has a new book coming out in December called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us  that explores these ideas in more detail. You can bet I'll be pre-ordering. I think there's a lot to consider here. . .


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Via Dave Pollard a link to an approach to pedagogy called Where Are Your Keys? (WAYK). I'm having a hard time relating it directly to Pink's talk, but it does seem relevant to your questions.

Evan Gardner decided to become a teacher and having studied education myself, I was quite taken by is approach. Anyhow he did his work to be certified as a Spanish teacher. But along the way became very interested in disappearing Native American languages. And wanted to throw all the tricks about teaching he'd learned towards solving the problem of how to teach these languages to a critical mass in the shortest possible time.

There's a lot to his approach and he and Willem Larsen don't have all of it up. The Podcast interview of Gardner by Larsen is quite good, but about an hour long. But the post "The Fluency Paradigm" only takes a few minutes to read:

"Notice the distinction there; in our modern culture we mostly value the amount of facts you carry. In a fluency-based learning culture we value the amount of questions."

"In a mainstream sense, to “know” something means to have an intellectual understanding of it, though the execution of it may elude you."

"In a fluency sense, to “know” something means you feel comfortable in your skin about it, that you can implement this knowledge easily and gracefully."

Pink talks about motivation, WAYK is about how we exchange knowledge.

It may be really OT, but something that connects is how the WAYK approach upsets the line between teachers and learners. It's something like: we all become learners, or just as good, we all become teachers. When distinction is done away with learning takes on added responsibility, because we have to share it. But the process is collaborative so it doesn't seem like more work.

I think there is a portion of society that believes that the problem with our educational system is that we allow children to "break the rules." Those that feel we should be focusing on the "basics" really are saying we should continue to teach the traditional curriculum of generations before us, not recognizing the changes that are the result of new technologies and a new world order.

I have found, as a result, that we don't want creativity. The standards based education means that students are not encouraged to deviate from a set curriculum; they can't be creative. As my son's 4th grade teacher wrote on his practice exam for the NY State 4th grade standardized test, "You can't include humor in your answer." It deviates from the norm.

As a result of this type of education, I spend much of my time at the college level trying to get students to deviate from the norm. They are very reluctant to go out on the limb to give their opinion (this was penalized in High School) or even create their own theories. I predict that the next generation will look to those who have the power or expertise to come up with solutions. This is unfortunate as I feel much of the advances in our society have come from those outside of mainstream and not willing to toe the norms.

I think this also has some interesting implications for whom we should ask for advice when "fixing" a business, particularly if you are a non-profit. Does it really make sense to get people in who focus on external motivators if your non-profit mainly works because of internal motivators? I don't think so.
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