Learning To Drive or Driven To Learn? (Part 1)

Talking with Daniel Pink on motivation, compliance and education. 

My wife Tricia “failed” her first driver’s test. There, the world knows.  Her father had dedicated the previous few months to teach her proper.  During the first lesson she, her father and younger brother got into the sky blue ’88 Caprice Classic station wagon that was parked in the two car garage.

“Place the keys in the ignition place your foot on the brake and turn the engine over.”  Her father stated in his stoic and serious manner.

“But Dad, shouldn’t I. . .”

“Listen, if you want to learn you have to listen.  Do not interrupt and listen.  I’ll teach and you listen.  Now turn the engine over.  Good.  Place the car in reverse and slowly take your foot off the brake.”

“Dad, when am I going to . . .”

“Tricia, you have to listen and do what I say.  Don’t interrupt.  I am trying to tell you, you need to listen.”  The electrical engineer inside was getting the better of Dad.  Learning about things like driving and electricity was not done through trial and error.  This was life or death.  Get it right the first time.

Tricia was making every attempt to engage with her teacher.  She was instead being told to comply.  Let’s face it.  From the driver’s perspective learning to drive is an engaging process.  From the passenger’s seat compliance seems entirely appropriate.

Until you realize you just instructed your 16 year old daughter to drive through the closed garage door.  The 13 year old boy in the back seat stating that “she was trying to tell you Dad,” didn’t help.

On one of our snowed in nights this winter I had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Surprisingly he was snowed in at his location in Washington D.C. as well.  For over 45 minutes Daniel, Jodie and I talked about motivation and engagement versus compliance in the educational setting.  His insights into the system of education and the connections to his research for Drive are timely and certainly transferrable.

The text below is a record of that conversation presented here with Daniel’s permission.  The conversation has been edited for presentation purposes.  Thanks to Daniel Pink for his interest in sharing his thoughts, ideas and perspectives with educators.

JC: Variations of the carrot and stick can be seen in classrooms all over the world, certainly in North America. How can we unlearn some of these practices, practices of – to be kind of flippant about it–candy and detentions, so that kids can be motivated to learn more?

DP: For adults unlearning things is far more difficult than learning things so it’s a very tall order. One of the things that‘s happened is that we essentially created a set of assumptions that the way people, whether they are big people or little people, perform better is if you offer a reward or threaten them with a punishment.  What’s disconcerting is that this is true some of the time.  The danger with our kids is that if we treat them in a way that suggests that the only reason to do something is to get a good grade or to avoid a punishment we essentially sacrifice an enormous amount of talent and capability.  When learning is open-ended, collaborative, when it’s about the strategy rather than the right answer then the approach is valuable in terms of helping kids think.
JC: In Ontario we have had a recent change to our report card system driven by a document called Growing Success: Assessment Practices from K-12. Learning skills are at the forefront of a child’s progress.  The rest of the report card uses the traditional letter grades to rate a student’s performance.  What are your thoughts on assessment, evaluation and reporting processes that happen in schools?

DP:You have to know how kids are doing.  The problem is that often the assessment ends up driving everything. It basically becomes the purpose rather than feedback on the purpose and that is incredibly distorting. When you focus entirely on the performance goals, you often have a very thin, fleeting mastery of the material.  It could actually be doing kids a disservice.  You want to measure learning skills and you need a measure of performance.  What concerns me is less grades per se than when grades basically become the goal rather than learning as the goal. If grades are the goal then people will go for the grades and may miss out on the learning. Again, I don’t think you necessarily have to get rid of grades but you have to put it into context.  I don’t think there is an ideal evaluation system but before you get to the ideal evaluation system you have to go to the first principles.  We are evaluating things because we want to give people feedback so that they can learn. We are not evaluating things as the end in itself.
There’s a difference between a learning goal and a performance goal. They are not the same.  Our schools, especially in the States, are focused entirely on performance goals because they think that learning goals and performance goals are the same.  Policy makers, even parents, haven’t reckoned with the fact that they are two very different things.  I’ll give you the best example of this I can an example that you can relate to in Canada. I took French in secondary school and in university for six years. Every marking period of every semester I got an A in French. I can’t speak French. Why? The reason is I didn’t learn French; what I did is I performed on tests and quizzes. But if you throw me on the streets of Quebec City, in a French speaking part, and I get lost, I’m not going to find my way back home. If I had focused in those six years on actually trying to learn French maybe I would have gotten a B but I would probably be able to speak French. We’re obsessed over performance goals and we’re sort of thinking that if the performance goals are right then the learning goals will follow and that’s just not true. In fact, the opposite might be true. That is, if we focus on the learning goals then the performance will end up taking care of itself.

JN: How do we change the minds of the students who have been going for that grade all along?

DP:It is really difficult because as an individual you are taking on an incredibly heroic and daunting task. You’re saying how can I deprogram and reprogram my 25 students, and then all the students in the school, and then all the students in Ontario. It’s a very daunting task because every other message they are getting, whether from parents, from policy makers, from the design and architecture of the school’s evaluation system itself, is telling something opposite. So you’re going up against really ferocious headwinds.  The way I look at this is you’ve got to start small. Try to reach one or two kids.  If you can do that, that is progress – you’ve made a difference in one or two kids’ lives. Try to reach one or two parents. Find one or two fellow educators who are with you and you have a little alliance and that’s how institutions change. That’s how society changes. We all want to be able to say “Whoa! Here we go – we’re going to change it all.” And it doesn’t work that way. It’s slow and it’s one by one.  What keeps teachers going is the opportunity to affect one or two kids and to have those kids be better human beings because of their presence

To Be Continued . . . (PART TWO)

carrots + sticks < love, “Click” change and Teacher / Learner by Libby Levi for opensource.com

You can follow Daniel (DP), James (JC) and Jodie (JN) on Twitter

@danpink, @cowpernius and @iteachELL

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