Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose OR Purpose, Mastery, Autonomy?

Image courtesy of RSA Animations

One of my favorite TED Talks comes from Dan Pink, which addresses some of the ideas in his book, Drive.  To briefly sum up, Pink makes the case that the intrinsic motivators of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are what we should be fostering in people if we want them to do creative, cognitively demanding work.  The book has, I think, many ramifications for educators, and I have been talking with my fellow teachers over the past year or two about it. 

Just the other day, I happened to read some of the comments on the page for the talk, and I came across this interesting take:

Dec 16 2012: While I always enjoy Pink’s talks, over the last few years I have been disappointed at some aspects of this work. I love the presentation of the research that shows that intrinsic rewards are more important than financial incentives for certain types of work, but I see very few organizations actually changing. This science, as good as it is, says nothing about what it takes to create an environment rich in intrinsic rewards. The order of presentation of the categories — autonomy, mastery and purpose — and the emphasis on autonomy in this talk makes this situation worse. I have seen many organizations try to implement autonomy and it has been disastrous because it is autonomy for its own sake, not for achieving a purpose. Think of it this way — do you want to give someone autonomy who doesn’t support the overall purpose of the organization or isn’t very good at their job? I doubt it. Autonomy is earned as a result of purpose and mastery.

If an organization wants to increase its innovation, morale and productivity, it can use these categories but in a very specific order. First, it should collectively define a compelling purpose, one where everyone wants to contribute to creating a greater good. Second, there has to be mastery or the result is a throw-away. People have to be good to be trusted. Fortunately, people who are driven by a compelling purpose will work incredibly hard to achieve mastery. Only then is autonomy a factor…and by then it isn’t relevant because everyone is already functioning in an incredibly great way.

While I don’t share the commentator’s disappointment in Pink, I think that the general idea of the comment makes sense: order matters.  William claims that Purpose, then Mastery, then Autonomy are the way to go. 

Now think about a project or problem-based classroom.   Is there a way that we assume an order of the above ideas?   Do we grant autonomy first?   Do we push for mastery first?   Is whatever assumption we make the best one?     Is William right in his claim that purpose must come first? (Simon Sinek would probably agree that it should)  Is autonomy merely a happy byproduct of achieving the other two?

As a teacher, it makes me think about having next year’s seniors wrestle with the question, “What is the purpose of schooling?”   I have done something like this in the past, and it has been effective; in my classroom, I have had the three words, “Desire, Discipline, and Perseverance” on the wall, and I would have students write about their desire for taking the class (usually physics).    I think, though, part of the efficacy had to do with the fact that I was teaching what amounted to an elective course, and my students were, for the most part, already interested in learning something in the course, going to college, and achieving a career for which taking physics made some sense.  By asking the question, I was providing a platform for reinforcing their already-reasoned enrollment.   It was a good move, but it may not have been super innovative or ground-breaking, especially for the students.  They already had purpose.

At a small school, however, I think that there is a greater opportunity to talk about why students are in school in the first place.   What is their purpose for being in school, and at OUR school?    Is there a way to distill all of their thoughts, and come up with a means of identifying a common purpose?   Or at least commonalities among the various purposes that each student brings to the table?   And if a student doesn’t have a purpose, can we help impart some?  

Many open questions here, obviously.   Have you dealt with this in your school?  How?  Do you want to?    Has anyone thought of moving from Purpose to Mastery to Autonomy systematically?  If there are any NTN coaches or BIE trainers reading this, I would love to hear about any schools you’ve seen address any ideas like these. 

Parallel Projects

Sometimes, integration of subjects for projects is just a bit contrived.

Take the project (projects?) we just finished.  My teaching partner, Megan, wanted to have students engage in The Moth – a project where they tell a story from their own experience, without notes, live.   Every humanities course in our school did the same project at the same time, culminating in a school-wide event on a Friday evening, at nex+Gen.   Students were the story tellers, as you might be able to tell from the photo above.   The concept is fantastic, and I embraced it immediately after Megan made the suggestion.

But what to do about science and math integration?   Should the students tell stories about math?  Their experiences saving the whales?  Seemed a bit, well, limiting, what with the lack of whales in NM.    Nonetheless, we proceeded; the action of having all the students doing the same sort of project at all grade levels is just too awesome to let my trepidations about our integration, or lack thereof, get in the way.

Despite the lack of any obvious connection to math or science, my mind still rolled it over and over, considering how to integrate with The Moth.   In math we’d dealt with binomial distributions, and the next logical topic was normal distributions, and using them to find probabilities.    Stories about finding probabilities?   Mmmmmmm.  Riveting.

At the same time we launched the project in our classroom, it turns out that I was in the last stages of preparing for a TEDxABQ talk.   Part of the preparation for a TEDx talk includes a lot of rehearsal and coaching sessions, where the organizers remind you of  the time that you are given, and the time that you use, with no small number of threats about going over your limit.   During one of the coaching sessions, one of the coaches mentioned a number of words that should correspond to 6 minutes.    I forgot the value he gave, but what I do remember is that a time limit means a word limit.  Of course, that word limit will vary, depending upon a person’s rate of speech.

Ah ha! “Depending upon a person’s rate of speech.”   I figure variation in the rate of speaking might be the sort of thing that is fairly random, so if you took some data of people talking, you might get a normal distribution.   My own data-taking with TED Talks online revealed that, in fact, speaking rates were pretty dang close to a normal distribution, and reasonable enough to proceed. (sample size = 21 speakers.  Mean speaking rate = 170.5 words per minute).

Since students were given a window of 5-7 minutes for their stories, the idea seemed rather applicable.   So… what if students find the number of words that a speaker can say in the time for TED talk, or the Moth?   Or what if they find the time it takes to speak a certain number of words?    With those questions, the stats project was born, and students quickly set to recording each other speaking, or listening to recordings in order to determine the most understandable rate, or watching TED Talks online, measuring both time and word count.   As fun (and they were really into it) as that was, it was not really integrated into their preparation for the Moth – rather, it was done parallel to The Moth, and students saw that it had some application.   The final products would be different: for English, there would be a performance, and for math, a sort of lab report detailing their findings.   We found that the math took a bit longer to finish, so the products were not even due on the same day, but within a week of each other.   

Several of the students determined probabilities that could be used by future teachers and students as they plan their stories.  For example, one group found that if someone had a 900 word speech, there is a 67% chance that it would last between 5 and 7 minutes.   Another group created an online calculator for TED organizers, to allow them to calculate the probabilities of word ranges for a given time.

Thus we had two projects and two products, inspired by the whole-school activity, both authentic, and both engaging.  It felt much better to go this route of parallel projects than to contrive a scenario where both subjects got crammed together into some sort of lurching frankenproduct.   I’m certain the villagers were happier this way.