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. 


2 thoughts on “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose OR Purpose, Mastery, Autonomy?

  1. Kevin,

    Thanks for this. I have been moving to more open-ended projects. Some students thrive, but the unmotivated (i.e. no purpose) students are difficult to get to do quality work. I believe in personalizing education, but this post has me thinking about why it doesn't work for many students-no purpose.

    This really points out the problem to me. Now the next question is how to help students find a purpose. That may be my goal for the rest of this year.

    Mike Kaechele


  2. I had the same reaction to Drive as seen here. My thoughts were that you first start with Purpose, then go to Mastery, and then Autonomy. I also believe there is need for a social component to in this. Anyhow, my take and I would be up for any additional resources to be able to argue this point in a paper.


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