Here’s a radical thought: let’s differentiate childhood education from dog training!

TreeThe photo to the right is of our family dog, Treetree (we stupidly allowed a 2 year old to name her and Treetree is what we ended up with.) She’s a yellow Labrador Retriever, a breed notoriously easy to train. Dog motivation, and particularly Lab motivation is pretty simple: they want to please their owners and extra food is always welcome, and so a carrot and stick approach works very well. They do a good job, they get a treat, they do a bad job and they are scolded. Despite the fact that Treetree is definitely not the smartest dog in the world, and that we were not the most consistent and industrious dog trainers ever, she’s a well trained dog; the carrot and stick approach of “if-then” turns out to be a good way to train a dog, but is it how we should be educating our children?

To recap briefly my argument put forward so far over the last few months: as traditional “left-brained” jobs get automated and outsourced to China and elsewhere, and as these countries themselves start to move into the innovation space, the US and other western countries need to be educating children in a whole new way. We are not educating our children to be creative, innovative, inventive leaders for the 21st century, we are not even improving our ability to compete in traditional left-brained-based activities with other countries. So, now let’s fantasize for a moment that the Department of Education wakes up and realizes how truly lacking the education system in this country is. They do away with standardized, multiple-choice exams; they do away with the traditional grading system until high school; they devise a curriculum that encourages children to be intellectually vibrant, academic risk-takers for life. Even if this were all to happen, I think that there would still be a part of the puzzle that would be missing: how to motivate children in this brave new world.

Daniel Pink’s new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, proposes a simple, but very powerful theory: as we move from a left-brain, task-based economy to a more creative, right-brain one, we need to upgrade our motivation structures. Corporations and schools have been attempting to motivate people in much the same way that our family tried to train our dog: the carrot and stick approach. And this approach will no longer deliver the desired outcome: to give people an incentive to do a better a job; in fact, it can actually inhibit these outcomes.

Pink claims that tasks can be bifurcated into those that are algorithmic, “following a set of established instructions down a pathway to a single conclusion”, and the diametrically opposed heuristic tasks which need experimentation in order to “create a novel solution.” Traditional white-collar jobs, concentrating on left-brain activities fall primarily into the algorithmic group. I would argue, so does most of the “teach to the test” of the US education system. The traditional view is that when “work consists mainly of simple, not particularly interesting tasks..The only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully”. Much of what is taught in most schools is boring, consisting primarily of rote memorization and training for multiple-choice tests. How to motivate students to improve grades and test scores in this environment is clearly an issue. In corporations these incentives are usually some form of monetary compensation but even in education, there has been a move towards offering cash prizes to students for good grades and attendance. And even without these overt bribes, there has always been a carrot and stick attitude prevalent in schools; detentions for poor performance and behavior, ice cream socials to reward the desired behaviors.

There is much to be questioned about the long-term effectiveness of such incentives even in the realm of algorithmic tasks. As Pink points out, “when the tasks called for ‘even rudimentary’ cognitive skill, a larger reward [leads to] poorer performance.” One very good reason for not paying for educational performance is that, as Pink also points out, “The short-term prize crowds out the long term learning” as “schoolchildren who are paid to solve problems typically choose easier problems and therefore learn less”. Another, compelling argument is that once the road to paying for performance is taken, it becomes an expectation and there is a need to constantly up the ante. Once a student has been given an iPod for good grades, how can they ever be motivated to study for anything other than an expensive piece of electronic equipment?

But beyond the wisdom of paying children to study for standardized tests and more left-brain school work, following Daniel Pink’s logic, these kinds of external motivators will definitely not produce the desired behaviors once applied to more creative, heuristic-task based learning. In the case of this kind of education, “intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.” These types of incentives work to narrow the focus as they concentrate the mind on achieving precisely the desired outcome. This might be the desired behavior for a rote task, but for a task that requires a more thoughtful, creative, innovative solution, narrowing the focus is precisely the wrong driver for the behavior. If all a science teacher wants to teach is the history of other people’s science, then narrowing the focus might be a perfectly valid goal. However, if the teacher wants to teach the scientific method, want to turn her students into scientists, to open their mind to the possibilities of scientific discovery, then the students’ minds need to be open, their sense of wonder expansive.

What might this extrinsic motivation consist of? Well, as a recent McKinsey study shows, the top three non-financial motivators “play critical roles in making employees feel that their companies value them, take their well-being seriously, and strive to create opportunities for career growth. These themes recur constantly in most studies on ways to motivate and engage employees.” These incentives, from a corporate perspective are praise from immediate managers, leadership attention and a chance to lead projects. The study showed that once base pay is at a satisfactory level, then these three motivators work better than “cash bonuses, increased base pay, and stock or stock options”.

Peter Bregman tells an interesting story in the Harvard Business Review about one possible way to tap in people’s deeper, intrinsic motivations. His thought is, “We can stoke another person's internal motivation not with more money, but by understanding, and supporting, his story.” It is possible to tap into someone’s internal, intrinsic motivation by reinforcing their internal story of the kind of person they are, asking them, “Why are you doing this work? What moves you about it? What gives you the satisfaction of a job well done? What makes you feel good about yourself?”

Sasha Putting the McKinsey results and Bregman’s thoughts together leads me to posit that a better way to motivate students follows much the same conceptual pathways. Rather than paying for educational performance, perhaps more emphasis should be put on praise, leadership attention and the chance to be a leader. My children’s school has mixed age grades, and my youngest daughter is now in 1st grade. As an early reader, she loves nothing more than to be given the chance to sit and read to and with the kindergartners, to be a leader. Their school has a very strong mentoring program between older and younger students and this philosophy more informally pervades all aspects of the school day. My older daughter has regularly helped one of her struggling classmates and this is encouraged and praised by her teachers. Her story about herself is that she’s a good student and a good friend. Reinforcing her internal story about herself and pointing out its benefits and the possible results of not living up to that internal story are a powerful motivating force for her.

Schools do have the Honor Roll and other ways of recognizing outstanding students, but what about the struggling students, the ones unlikely to ever make the Honor Roll? How can their intrinsic motivation be nurtured? And perhaps, if we can speak to this intrinsic motivation and teach them the benefits of relying on it rather than external incentives, we would have taught them an even more important life lesson. Because, after all, isn’t the very worst part of paying our children to study is that we are reinforcing the notion that the only things worth doing are the things that you get some extra pay to do? Instead, Pink claims, we should be encouraging the “drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging and absorbing” And if a task just can’t viewed in this way, then we need to add another dimension to the activity, one that highlights “autonomy, mastery and purpose”. Becoming better at something, mastery of it, can be a driving force even in less creative tasks, if it is tapped into appropriately. Let's not only rethink how and what we teach our children, but also reconsider the rewards and punishments used to motivate them to learn.