Daniel Pink has done extensive research on what drives or motivates us as human beings to lead productive and successful lives. Pink argues that, "The science shows that the secret to high performance isn't our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive--our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution" . In other words, humans are most productive when they are intrinsically motivated--when the joy of the task is its own reward. And humans are intrinsically motivated when they are provided with an opportunity for autonomous work, to reach mastery, and to understand the purpose of their work .
In the Workplace
There are many careers and occupations that are applicable to autonomy and self-directed work, but let's take the famous artists Michelangelo, Picasso and Van Gogh for example. "Nobody told them: "You must paint this sort of picture. You must begin painting precisely at eight-thirty a.m. You must paint with the people we select to work with you. And you must paint this way" . Daniel Pink believes that, "Whether you're fixing sinks, ringing up groceries, selling cars, or writing a lesson plan, you and I need autonomy just as deeply as a great painter" .
20 Percent Time
It's evident that we are naturally more creative and more productive when we have control over our work. One of the most innovative strategies to increase production in the workplace is to allot for "20 Percent Time". This "20 Percent Time" is an initiative in place at a few companies in which employees can spend 20 percent of their time working on any project they choose .
The best-known company to embrace it is Google, which has long encouraged engineers to spend one day a week working on a side project. In a typical year, more than half of Google’s new offerings are birthed during this period of pure autonomy . Some Googlers use their "20 percent time" to fix an existing product, but most use it to develop something entirely new" . Google News, Gmail, Google Talk, Google Sky, and Google Translate are just a few of the projects that have been created on "20 percent time".
"Created by the Australian software company Atlassian, these one-day bursts of autonomy allow employees to tackle any problem they want--and then show the results to the rest of the company at the end of twenty-four hours. Why the name? Because you have to deliver something overnight" . Get it? Atlassian offers "FedEx Days" to its employees once every quarter in order boost productivity from self-directed projects. This is a very interesting work strategy that more and more businesses are beginning to explore.
Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)
The brainchild of two American consultants, a ROWE is a workplace in which employees don't have schedules. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time or any time. They just have to get their work done. For example, while many enterprises are off-shoring work to low-cost providers overseas, some companies are reversing the trend by beginning what's known as "home-shoring" . "Instead of requiring customer service reps to report to a single large call center, they're routing the calls to the employees' homes. This cuts commuting time for staff, removes them from physical monitoring, and provides far great autonomy over how they do their jobs" . Interestingly, "Productivity and job satisfaction are generally higher in home-shoring than in conventional arrangements--in part because employees are more comfortable and less monitored at home" .
In the Schools
Pink suggests that too often, "We're bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into engagement" . Simply put, control leads to compliance, whereas, autonomy leads to engagement. In order to foster intrinsic motivation in our students, Pink recommends that we as teachers should allow our students to have autonomy over the four T's: task, time, technique, and team .
Pink recommends that teachers should ask themselves these three questions when giving assignments :
- Am I offering my students any autonomy over how and when they do this work, and who they work with?
- Does this assignment promote mastery by offering a novel, engaging task (as opposed to rote reformulation of something already covered in class)?
- Do my students understand the purpose of this assignment? That is, can they see how doing this activity contributes to the larger enterprise in which the class is engaged?
Furthermore, we need to be challenging our students to engage in more nonroutine work--creative, conceptual, right-brain work that can't be reduced to a set of rules . This is because routine work--work that can be reduced to a script, a spec sheet, a formula, or a set of instructions--has become easier (and often cheaper) to send offshore, or to automate via computers . As a result, such algorithmic, rule-based, left-brain work has become less valuable and less important in advanced economies, such as the United States .
To accommodate to the demand of our global economy, we as teachers need to be providing our students with more opportunities for nonroutine work, where students have voice and choice over their task, time, technique, and team. For example, my middle school has created a "fun learning experience" (FLEX) block where students are allowed to work on self-directed projects for one hour each day. This FLEX-ible block is very similar to Google's "20 Percent Time", only our students are working an hour every day, as opposed to working one full day out of the week. Some of our students' projects have included creating a weekly school e-Newsletter; producing Public Service Announcements on important topics regarding health and safety; and entering in several national competitions including Google Doodle, C-SPAN StudentCam 2013, National History Day, Verizon App Challenge, Science Fairs, and more.
During our FLEX block, I have observed my students displaying more intrinsic motivation to succeed at these projects in addition to demonstrating a higher level of creativity. I attribute these findings due to the fact that our students do not receive a "grade" for their self-directed projects. I believe that removing grades, coupled with having full autonomy over their projects, subconsciously tells them that their activities are more like "play" as opposed to "work". I have even noticed my students achieving a state of "flow" when they are living so deeply in the moment and feeling so utterly in control, that their sense of time, place, and even self have melted away .
Ten years of employment data has discovered that the largest gains have been in jobs that require “people skills and emotional intelligence, imagination, and creativity" . Furthermore, it has been determined that in the future, "There will be plenty of work not just for inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs but also for an array of imaginative, emotionally intelligent, right-brain professionals, from counselors to massage therapists to schoolteachers to stylists to talented salespeople" .
In closing, let's model our classrooms to reflect these innovative work environments that are yielding both personal satisfaction and high performance. Let's empower our students to have more autonomy in their learning and encourage more right-brain, nonroutine work to best meet their needs and ultimately prepare them for the 21st century workplace!
- Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
- Pink, D. H. (2010). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh: Canongate.