06:30 start

On the last day of a week’s holiday when I have largely immersed myself in my personal interests, the dreaded 06.30 rise stares me in the face once again (I never was a morning person…) – and the issue of motivation is at its sharpest. At least the 50-minute crawl to work gives me ample time to reflect on why I do it.

I remember a conversation had with a senior colleague some years ago about how to boost teacher morale. He was of the view that schools need to provide staff with reasons to be motivated in the form of various carrots and sticks, ranging from pay and promotion, through professional development and corporate vision, to capability proceedings. He also seemed to think that this was sufficient to justify the almost martyr-like devotion that the best teachers ‘should’ exhibit.

This did not ring true. Apart from the fact that vocation is one thing and martyrdom quite another (and not always very productive at that), my instinctive response was, “Owen, nothing that this or any school can do or provide comes anywhere near the motivation I experience inside me for this work – and all the other things I need to do in my life”. I knew this was deeply true, but I think he was a little taken aback.

Then, in one of life’s rare but satisfying coincidences, just a week later, I came across the writing of Daniel Pink, and through him the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Despite its rather clunky title, Pink’s book Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us offers a great insight into this key issue – and beautifully summed up precisely what I had said to my colleague. It explained why so many institutional efforts to engage my enthusiasm and commitment have had precisely the opposite effect. It also answered something that had genuinely puzzled me for years: why my motivation can be almost obsessively high for some things and stone dead for others.

I don’t propose to plod through all of Pink’s content – but I recommend it as one of the most useful books I have read. The following video is a good summary of Pink’s case, and well worth watching, if only for the graphics…

I will however, pull out two of Pink’s main ideas:

1. Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. My colleague was homing in on extrinsic motivation – things that move us to act that are generally set either by other people or circumstances. It tends to be weak and short-term, and it encourages contingent behaviour – in other words people doing things for (and to the extent that) they can ‘get something out of it’. It also encourages malpractice if inappropriate incentives are applied.

I instinctively felt (correctly, according to Pink) that intrinsic motivation is more powerful. This is when things are worth doing ‘for their own sake’ – the process is the goal; it matters not what external reward you get for doing it. This is where I find motivation is greatest, longest-lasting and most sincere. It’s why I’ve created this blog, even though no one is paying me to do it.

2. In order to experience intrinsic motivation, three things are necessary:

  • autonomy of action (a sense of self-determination)
  • mastery (a sense of growing competence)
  • purpose (a higher reason for doing something).

…all of which may be inherently present, but which can also be created – or quashed.

Csikszentmihalyi’s contribution is the notion of Flow. Again, the man is best left to explain the concept himself, but this diagram neatly sums it up:


For me, this works.

Pink goes on to show that this is why carrot-and-stick management rarely engages people’s deep enthusiasm, whereas inner vocation rarely exhausts it. Nearly all of the developments in teaching and educational management in recent years have been in the realm of extrinsic behaviour. This goes both for teachers and pupils – the concepts apply equally to both.

  • In the case of teachers, we have been unremittingly criticised, controlled, given extrinsic targets and told that education is only about employability.
  • Pupils have been told pretty much the same – that it is all about targets, exam results and employability.

In both cases an intrinsic love of the life of the mind that can deeply motivate people to learn – and teach – has been virtually ignored.

And they wonder why we still have difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings…

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