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Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Posted October 09, 2012 in Community Blogs, Urbandale

Take a moment out of your day to imagine what your life would look like if you had freedom, flexibility, passion, and drive to engage in pursuits that contributed to a cause or movement larger than your own life. For some of us, these notions are a mirror of our own lives and it isn’t hard to imagine them as we live this way everyday. However, for many of us these notions have been either placed on the back-burner or have been diminished over the years and replaced with a belief that they are unattainable. If you identify with the latter, I encourage you to find out more about what truly motivates us and to begin by considering the following ideas.

For many years organizations, including schools, have relied heavily on extrinsic motivators to improve performance.  In short, a system of rewards (carrots) and punishments (sticks) has been in place to motivate people across many environments.

According to author Daniel Pink, in some environments extrinsic reward systems are still effective. For tasks requiring routine and repetitive skills, extrinsic rewards achieve desired results. However, when work is complex and requires creativity, extrinsic rewards have been shown to actually demotivate people.

Learning is a complex task, for both teacher and student. Learning systems, according to David Langford and J.W. Wilson, which “rely too aggressively on extrinsic motivators”, create a “neurological downshift” in the brain.  Brain research demonstrates that extrinsic reward systems cause the flow of blood in the brain to shift, compromising our working memory and “affects our ability to manage and relate to others.”  In short, according to physiological brain research, extrinsic reward environments compromise the brain’s ability to learn.

Daniel Pink offers three conditions that support intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is having freedom and flexibility as it relates to your task, time, technique and team. Mastery is having perseverance and passion as it relates to our pursuits; mastery attracts us because it is in the effort it takes that provides the greatest satisfaction. Purpose is having a sense of contributing to something bigger than ourselves; it’s understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing and provides a sense of relevance and meaning in our lives.

How might autonomy, mastery, and purpose look in a school environment?  What do we need to do to transform education so that we challenge students into engagement? What will the consequences be for our students if we do not begin to move in this direction?

Our team in the Urbandale Community School District is considering those important questions on a daily basis. To help answer them, we will be surveying students so they can provide us valuable feedback in order to improve our system and bring learning to life for everyone.


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