How understanding what motivates us can guide our school reform efforts

Key to improving public education is aligning our practice with what scientists have discovered about human motivation. Daniel Pink, in his 2009 book, Drive, is the latest author to summarize these scientific findings and discuss their implications for enhancing public education.

People are motivated, in part, by what social scientists call “intrinsic motivation.” Intrinsic motivation refers to drives beyond basic survival needs, and Pink identifies three he says should guide teaching and learning: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

People have a natural desire to be autonomous and self-directed. Teachers and students who feel a greater sense of control over their teaching and learning, respectively, experience greater success than their peers who feel less control. Researchers have also found that students who attribute academic performance to hard work, a variable they control, are more successful than students who attribute academic performance to innate intelligence, a variable they cannot control.

This need to be self-directed is one reason school choice is so essential to school improvement. Teachers, students and parents are more motivated and satisfied when they can choose their schools.

The second intrinsic motivator Pink discusses is mastery. Research shows we’re motivated by mastering challenging tasks that matter. Tasks that are too easy, too hard or not meaningful are de-motivating. In education this means challenging teachers and students with meaningful tasks that are difficult but not impossible to achieve. For example, when teachers and students assume the negative effects of poverty on achievement are insurmountable, they stop trying. Conversely, when teachers and students begin overcoming the effects of poverty their motivation is enhanced and they tend to work harder. The KIPP charter schools are a good example of this latter effect.

Finally Pink reviews the relationship between motivation and purpose. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. This means ensuring teachers and students are always able to see the connections between their daily school work and the greater goods they value. When teachers and students feel their school work is disconnected from a larger purpose, their work ethic is diminished.

These research findings on intrinsic motivation are widely accepted by social scientists and our colleges of education, and yet they are frequently ignored when policy is created and implemented. Education reforms from merit pay to digital learning will fail if their implementation is inconsistent with the laws of human behavior.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.


Thanks for this post. A thought-provoking and rather persuasive argument.

Interestingly, I’d not heard of the book _Drive_ by Daniel Pink until today — when I read about it here and then shortly thereafter saw it in the comment section at Education Next, where someone was saying the book completely debunked the idea of merit pay in education. I was skeptical, but have no familiarity with the book beyond the basic thesis you share here.

Maybe it’s worth a separate post rather than a comment in reply here, but I’d be curious to read your thoughts as a former educator who has read this book re its applicability to the merit pay debate and what you believe it has to say.

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