Motivation: Lessons from Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink's work is required reading in my edutopia.

My personal Drive copy is plastered with handwritten notes in pencil.  I am certain there is a positive correlation between the amount I write in a book and a book's sustenance.  Mr. Pink, hats off to you for your collection of research, your infused interpretations and "toolkits." Turning theory into practice is relatively easy for self-proclaimed "busy" people like me because of them.

...Evidently, not too busy to keep up a blog each week.  Do you believe Upcycled Education receives about 500 page views a week?  All you, lovely educators and allies....thank you.

Though, I could blog for the next ten weeks about Pink's work and Drive, I will share with you just a few highlights as I really want you to read Drive.  By the way, if you purchase your own copy of Drive, fill out this form and Daniel Pink will send you a free, signed bookplate to insert into your book.  See mine?

According to Pink, motivation has three essential elements:  autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For humans to be intrinsically motivated (motivated from within oneself), all three must be present and balanced.

Pink defines autonomy as the ability "to act with choice" and "direct your own life."  Do your students have autonomy over the following Ts? Parents, do your kids?
    • Time - Do your students have control over when they complete a task, lesson, activity or assessment?
    • Task - Do your students have control over what task, lesson, activity or assessment they choose to complete?
    • Technique - Do your students have control over how they complete their task, lesson, activity or assessment?
    • Team - Do your students have control over who they work with to complete their task, lesson, activity or assessment?
My guess, if you are in a traditional public school setting, is "no" on most of the Ts above. 
By the way, Montessori schools get yes-yes-yes-yes on all four Ts above. 
 How's that for fostering autonomy in our youth?


Pink states mastery is "becoming better at something that matters."  The trick here is finding out what matters to your students and then figuring out how that relates to teaching and learning.   In other words, what contributes to their flow.  If you missed our discussion of Flow Theory last week, start there since flow is essential to intrinsic motivation.  For educators, we must employ all our tools to learn about our students:  interest inventories, online surveys, face-to-face conversations, journals, calls home, etc. Like big businesses do, the more we know about our "client" or "customer," the better.  By the way, mastery is NEVER an easy street.  Be ready for lots of Piaget's disequilibrium.  Michael Jordan didn't get great at basketball without zillions of days of practice, right?  Same with our students. Ask yourself...

What do your students want to master? 
What do you want your students to master? 
Is there an intersection or commonality between the two?

I heard Jonathon Mooney say that he worked with a student who was a successful drug ring leader.  This student said he "wasn't good at anything."  Mooney responded, "You run a successful 50 person drug ring and you think you aren't good at anything?  Man, we just need to find you a new product."

Pink states that "humans, by their nature, seek purpose - a greater cause and more enduring than themselves."  Here's what you need to know about purpose....
    • Money doesn't buy you purpose.
    • Purpose typically shines through when students feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves - a school community, a team, a club, a caring classroom, a loving family, etc.
    • In the 21st century, there are new models of social entrepreneurship that mix business with social purpose.  Think TOMS shoes, Project 7 gum, and my future small business, Cloth with a Cause.  A girl can dream of using her social entrepreneurship skills, can't she? Many students this century are familiar with these new models of business; how could you discuss "purpose" using these models?  Could you find models that relate to your content area and infuse them in your lessons?  Additionally.....
How can you help students identify their purpose? 
Have you started dedications with your students to foster purpose?

Believe me, this is just the tip of a lovely, awesome, fresh iceberg of Daniel Pink's, Drive.  Treat yourself to this must-read book to explore motivation.  Of course, it's your choice :)



  1. As a middle school teacher, I think it is important to give my students some level of autonomy as they mature into adults. Recently I've started to give them choices of what type of practice they want to do (Task), but I feel like I should introduce even more. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword as I have noticed there tends to be an inverse relationship between the freedom my students have and the work that gets done. I guess this creates a question for you--how do I increase autonomy without having my classroom erupt into utter chaos?

  2. Eliza - I think what you are already trying is your answer. Start with baby steps. First, continue what you are doing to provide "task" choice. Then, consider melding in another T -like time or team. As students are used to and good at one T, then, you can incorporate another. You could also be explicit in what you are working towards - autonomy and all four Ts. Consider asking students which Ts they are best at? Which ones they need to improve? As you move forward, you can SWOT each step (if you haven't read that blog post, check it out). This is a good time to practice the Ts with your students and come up with a game plan for next school year.

    Best, Jen

  3. I would like to overtly incorporate this into my instruction next year - by explaining to students that I want them to have autonomy, a sense of purpose and a feeling of mastery/accomplishment each day in my class. I think setting up a classroom in which students are in charge, are invested in their work and believe that it matters will be a more effective way to promote learning especially because it is student-centered rather than teacher-centered which is super important at an 8th grade level when students are trying to sort out their roles at school and at home. I have seen that my students tend to be more motivated when they have autonomy. When I give my students choices, they often seem more ready and committed to the work at hand. One choice that my students constantly ask for more control over is what Team they work with. I cannot seem to encourage them to form groups in which they work effectively and manage their time well when I let them choose, so I often create their groups for them. Is there a way that I can encourage students to form better teams? Another question that is looming, is what if your students don't really have a strong sense of purpose in the first place? How do you help them find one?

  4. I would love to have autonomy in my classroom, except I teach in the public school system. After manipulating lessons, science is where I have found a good balance. I have given my students the assignment of promoting recycling. From there the students are gathering in groups and finding a solution, it seems to work well, but as you mention there is room for chaos, but it has just been a matter of "training" them.
    Lucy A

  5. Ive heard so much about Mr. pink but never read up on him and he is worth the fuss. just the three examples from this post are brillient enough but theirs more. The three main words autonomy, mastery, and purpose can be used in the classroom for the students and for students like myself, it sets up those guide lines needed to succeed in the best possible way; by showing the student that its important now because its going to be important in the future.
    Gyler T

  6. A HUGE challenge in the public schools! About a month ago, I tried it. One of my reading groups read a novel and at the end of the book they asked if they could do a project. Sure, like I was going to say no. I told them they could, and didn't give them any additional parameters other than the date I wanted the project completed. The majority of the students took it and ran but two boys, who chose to work together had trouble getting it done. They started off strong but then fizzled and ended up with a not so put together poster. What do you imagine could have gone wrong?

    Meredith L.

  7. I checked 'Drive' out of my local library last week. I am only 20 pages into it, but I am so intrigued by it. I can't wait to have my own classroom and be the teacher who doesn't hand out "reward bucks" but somehow has the best, most motivated students in the school! I can't wait to get through the book....all of the 'how to implement this in business and education' stuff is at the end (and I don't want to skip anything)! I like Anamika's post above re. starting out the year and letting the students know that in this class, they get a voice.

    Kim Edillon

  8. Kristin FrankenfieldDecember 12, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    I cannot wait until my current semester is over and I have more "free" reading time. I
    am going to be putting "Drive" on my Christmas list. I am very intrigued by motivation
    theory as I have struggled to inspire my preteen to have some intrinsic motivation. I too
    am not enthralled with a "reward" program, but admit I often use negative reinforcement
    tactics we learned in class to get her to accomplish tasks; removing a chore for a job well
    done. I'd like to be able to inspire motivation in my children but struggle to let go of the
    control over time and task. Hopefully, as I train for the classroom, it will spill over into
    our home life!

  9. The only thing you'll find in public schools is the technique especially in math. The rule in math is any technique that is mathematically correct to arrive at the desired answer is acceptable. Students generally don't have much control over anything else unless there is some type of modification documented. After we went over this concept in class, I tried it at home with my grandson. This year is his first preschool experience. He likes to do things when he wants to do it. I figured I would get into his homework as soon as he got home from school so that he could spend the remainder of his awake time playing. My youngest son volunteered to help him since his mom was studying for a test. He refused to cooperate. When I finally got him to at least try, he refused to listen to instructions and was set on doing things his way which conflicted with the directions given with the assignment. My son continued to try unsuccessfully to get him to change his technique and finally he shut down and refused to do anything. I decided to give him a break so he could cool down. I made him a sandwich and let him watch tv. About 30 minutes later, he came to me and asked if I could help him with his homework. We had no further problems. I let him form his letters his way and in the end, they looked exactly as they did on his assignment sheet. He controlled the time, technique, and team and even had a little fun.

  10. Reading this blog highlights as to why Montessori schools cater to the childs individual needs. They allow their students to be intrinsically motivativated, giving them the time and opportunity to explore until they have reached their full understanding. As far as "mastery", the public school system does not allow the time needed for many students to fully grasp new concepts before moving on tot he next. Teachers are pressured to follow a curriculum, and students continue to be lost.

  11. I have added 'Drive' to my reading list! Giving students the lead seems like a great way to figure out what motivates them. I love the idea about students knowing the purpose of their learning. During my fieldwork I heard it over and over "Why do we have to learn this? Is it going to be on the test?" Motivation does not come from tests and that is not authentic learning.

    P.S. Cloth with a Cause? You know I sew right? Tell me more!

    Emillee C.

  12. Just wanted to share that Daniel Pink will be at Key School in Annapolis on 04/21. They have an annual book/writing event. There will be several authors there. I was soooo stoked to see his name; if we are not camping that weekend I will def. be there!

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