Motivation theory and school reform

When teachers do their best, it is easier for their students to do the same. School reform that maximizes teacher engagement is a crucial ingredient of effective schools. 

So what engages teachers and motivates them to excel?

I posed the question to Stephanie Myers, a great teacher—and now a doctoral student at Harvard University—who had hosted me for several years as a classroom volunteer. She directed me to Drive, a book by Daniel Pink. To my surprise, the book was about motivation, not education, but it had a lot to do with creating excellence in schools.

Because I’m so focused on the social purposes of education and the dynamics of the learning process, I forget that teaching is a job and that schools are workplaces as well as communities. Drive gave me a framework to think about teaching as work and about how educational workplace policy affects the work of teachers. 

Teaching is a special kind of work: purposeful, creative, skilled and demanding. What can management theory tell us about motivating the professionals who do this work?

Traditional management practices are rooted in the assembly-line workplace of the industrial age. They were designed for work that was simple, repetitive and boring. In this tradition, extrinsic motivators—punishment and reward—are used to foster productivity.

Pink argues that modern management practices have failed to accommodate changes in the nature of work. They ignore groundbreaking research, such as that of University of Wisconsin primatologist Harry Harlow (I grew up in Madison and often passed his primate lab), who established that some work has intrinsic value: accomplishing the task can be the motivation for completing the task.

The assembly line no longer dominates work life. A lot of work—including teaching—is complex, interesting and self-directed. Extrinsic motivators applied to creative work can be counterproductive. They can crush creativity, diminish performance, encourage cheating and foster short-term thinking—the opposite of what we need to make schools more productive.

A more effective approach to motivating performance when work is complex is to address some basic human needs. When you satisfy desires for competence, autonomy and relatedness, people are motivated, productive and happy. A congenial workplace, opportunities to pursue mastery and daily duties that relate to a larger purpose pave the way for excellence. When these elements are in place, Pink writes, “the best strategy is to provide a sense of urgency and significance and then get out of the talent’s way.”

Teaching is the opposite of assembly-line work. While there are routines, there is nothing routine about the work. Despite efforts to “teacher-proof” teaching, teachers still matter, because children are unique and unpredictable. It is complex work where intrinsic motivation powers daily effort.

If Pink is right, management practices built on rewards and sanctions are not going to move education forward. We already know that test-oriented teaching can undermine the quality of instruction and even lead to cheating. Public shaming, humiliation and threats to reconstitute failing schools cause disengagement, not excellence. In such circumstances, why would we expect performance pay to lead to different levels of performance?

I’d like to see our policy makers join the modern age. It’s time to dump the rewards and punishments of the 19th century and figure out how to support teachers’ internal drive for constant improvement. Policy makers should get out of the way and let teachers use their talents to best serve the children they are teaching.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, former director of Reaching Heights, and serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 6, Issue 3, Posted 1:36 PM, 02.28.2013