In an age when there’s so much debate about merit pay, test scores, and accountability, I ask myself the question: What can I learn from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us that I can take directly back to my school and put into practice? I have reread Pink’s book with this lens, and here’s some of my thoughts.
As a school leader if I rely on carrot-and-stick motivational schemes, I will not get the organizational results I seek. If school leaders are waiting for states to implement bonus pay schemes to solve their problems, they will be disappointed. Pink outlines in his book seven deadly flaws to using carrots and sticks: 1) they extinguish intrinsic motivation, 2) they diminish performance, 3) they crush creativity, 4) they crowd out good behavior, 5) they encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior, 6) they become addictive, and 7) they foster short-term thinking. As a school principal, everyone of these side effects is the opposite from that which I would like foster our school culture. I want teachers and students to be intrinsically motivated: that’s called high engagement. I certainly do not want diminished performance, creativity crushed, and good behavior crowded out by a fixation on “what’s-in-it-for me thinking.” A school where cheating, shortcut taking, and a focus on short-term thinking will hardly take our students into the 21st century. Administrators would do well not to turn to carrot-and stick motivational schemes to foster higher performance.
Instead of relying on carrot-and-stick motivational schemes, as a school leader, I need to foster a high performance culture that values and emphasizes autonomy, mastery, and purpose. What this means in practical terms, as a school leader, I can’t view my staff as pawns in a scheme to get the best test scores. Students aren’t raw materials that to which we as educators add value to by pouring knowledge into their heads. For my school, I would much rather have staff focused on the work rather than “what’s-in-it-for-me.” In addition, my job as principal is create a culture where teachers and students pursue “mastery as an asymptote” as Pink calls it. This means the joy of working comes from pursuing mastery because it is elusive. Finally, as school leader I need to keep our purpose out front. This means keeping purpose maximization, the educational needs of our kids, at the center of what we’re doing.
In the past year, there has been a great deal of debate about what reform should look like, and we who are passionate about kids and education need to be involved in that debate. But even in the midst of that debate I feel these two principles from Daniel Pink can transcend all those reforms. While all those who call themselves education reformers fight over the scraps from the Kings table, as school leaders we can focus on making our schools places where everyone is engaged in education, not worrying about “what’s in it for me.” Schools can be places where autonomy is prized and is the rule, where the push for mastery is the goal, and the purpose is educating our students.