Thanks to my network on Twitter I saw two TED videos yesterday that got me thinking about (and then rethinking) my ideas about teaching and learning. (Incidentally, if you haven’t spent any time perusing the TED site, take some time right now and do it. You won’t be disappointed. I’ll wait.)

The first came to my attention through Matt Perman‘s blog, What’s Best Next. Daniel Pink recently gave a talk called The Surprising Science of Motivation.

Though his talk is geared at business leaders, it has obvious applications to education. The key idea here is that extrinsic, contingent motivators only improve performance when the task in question is narrowly defined with a clear goal and obvious route to achieve it.

The problem is that we want our students to learn how to solve non-obvious, messy problems that don’t already have optimal solutions. But our curricula, our system, and our teaching methods are still based on (a) transmitting knowledge and wisdom from experts to novices through (b) rote application of routines and skills, using (c) extrinsic motivators such as grades to increase student performance. We operate our school systems and manage the employees the same way. We may paste new labels over the old cover, but the fundamental structure and philosophy remains the same.

Almost universally, according to Pink, the social science research of the last forty years says that higher incentives lead to worse performance. So what does that say for our system that is based on increasing performance by rewarding the top performers? Pink summarizes it this way:

Traditional management is great if your goal is compliance.
This leads me to believe that the underlying purpose for the education system in the United States (and likely elsewhere) is to facilitate compliance rather than learning.

Pink offers an idea that seems radical, but I think has some potential for schools: 20 percent time. In companies like Google, the employees are permitted to use twenty percent of their time to work on anything they like—complete autonomy. In companies that have used it, a significant amount of the “real work” ends up getting generated during the 20 percent time.

What would this look like in schools? Students would have the equivalent of one day per week to spend on learning anything they choose to learn in any way they choose to learn it. Complete autonomy. Teachers would be a resource to support the learning instead of directing it. No one would say, “No, you can’t do that in school.” Students would have the freedom to choose the tools and means and sources of learning.

Critics will say we have hardly enough time as it is to cover the required material. Giving away one-fifth of the school year would be madness! Maybe then it’s time to seriously rethink what is “required.”

The flip side of this is that we will still have core content during the other eighty percent of the year that some students will have no interest in learning. If the traditional incentives don’t work, how do we get students to be motivated to learn?

The second video I saw inspired me and gave me a glimpse of what teaching might look like if we move away from those extrinsic motivators. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, speaks on Music and Passion:

Zander says something that is as true for teachers as it is for conductors:

The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. My job was to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it. If they’re not shining you get to ask this question: “Who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining?”
I have to become a conductor. I don’t transmit knowledge to my students. I only have the ability to make students powerful, to awaken possibility in them. They are already learners. I just have to frame the content, the questions, the ideas in a way that makes them passionate about learning it. Easy? Hardly. Important? Absolutely.

Test scores, incentives, and other extrinsic motivators probably aren’t going away. But as an individual teacher, when I turn my attention to those, I lose sight of my real job. Instead I must ask myself every day

Are their eyes shining? If not, who can I become so that they do?
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