by Eric Sheninger
This summer I have made a commitment to reading more, and have chosen books that I think will help me become a better leader. A few weeks ago I finished Drive by Daniel Pink and am now halfway through Linchpin by Seth Godin. I highly recommend both of these books to any educator who is interested about the science behind motivation or overcoming resistance in order to become an indispensible component of an educational organization.
Through my reading of both books, it has become painfully clear that many of our current politicians and so-called educational reformers have it completely wrong when it comes to standardization. Now, I have always thought this was the case, but these two books have not only reaffirmed my views, but have also given me a great deal of concern as we inch closer to an educational system that focuses on test scores as the number one determinant of achievement.
Dan Pink reveals that the keys to unlocking and sustaining intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As a leader, this is the type of teaching and learning culture that I want to foster and cultivate, one where creativity flourishes, students find relevancy and meaning in their learning, and teachers are given the support to be innovative. A teaching and learning culture powered by intrinsic motivation will achieve this.
Unfortunately, we are being forced in the opposite direction. The current education movement is laden with “if-then” rewards and a “carrots and sticks” approach to motivation. If students score well on standardized tests, they move on to the next grade level or graduate while their teachers receive favorable marks on evaluations. These are forms of extrinsic motivation and will work in short term, but performance will not be sustainable as it will be with those motivated intrinsically. The same can be said for merit pay. Pink has provided a compelling case as to why this will never work and this is supported by the research.
Students are not motivated by standardized tests, as they find no true meaning and value in them. Teachers are motivated for all the wrong reasons, some of which includes job security or a financial incentive. A focus on standardization narrows the curriculum and creates a teaching culture where creativity, exploration, and critical thinking are scarce or non-existent. It creates a culture that students do not want to be a part of and one that can only be sustained with the use of “if-then” rewards or “carrots and sticks.” Is this the direction we want to go? Do we want schools to squash creativity and reinforce a model that worked well in the 20th century but will not prepare our students for their future?
Seth Godin describes linchpins as indispensable components of an organization — artists in their own right. These individuals don’t follow a manual, but instead are guided by an urge to do what is right. In my opinion, we want to create schools that allow teachers to become linchpins because, in the end, students benefit from their creativity, passion, and innovative mindset. However, standardization follows in the footsteps of a century-old education model focused on industrialization, which influences teachers and administrators in a way where the artist in each of them never evolves. This entrenched system produces students that lack creativity, are fearful of failure, work extremely hard to follow directions (homework, study for tests, not question authority), and are leaving schools with undesirable skills in a post-industrial society. Schools focus more on filling the minds of students with useless facts and knowledge as opposed to learning essential skills that can’t be measured with a #2 pencil.
Godin continues to provide example after example of how education has it all wrong. Take the resume for example. Virtually every school has students craft a resume to go along with their college application materials. Students don’t need resumes, they need to create artifacts of learning that provide details as to what they can really do or know. Godin provides a compelling alternative to a traditional resume and hiring process. I have tweaked the business example he provided into an educational one. Instead of standardization, have students make a presentation of their resume and skills learned while in school. Have them defend, answer questions, and lead a discussion with a variety of stakeholders. Does this seem more meaningful and relevant? When analyzing the science of motivation presented in Drive, I would certainly say so.
My only hope, and this is wishful thinking, is that research and common sense will ultimately prevail to save our education system from future demise if those with influence and power keep steering us in a failed direction. Let us learn from the past and create an educational system that instills a sense of intrinsic motivation and creates learners that are indispensible.