Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

I just returned from a conference for adjunct faculty at Buena Vista University. The keynote speaker was Troyce Fisher, a great educational leader in Iowa. She helped us unpack the college’s vision statement:

BVU’s Vision
We aspire to be a remarkable educational community, focused on learning, challenging every student, faculty and staff member to set and meet the highest standards of academic achievement, character, conscience and compassion.

My greatest takeaway came from the Dan Pink RSA Animate “Drive” video (below). When people are engaged in meaningful work, the motivation for them to do better is not for pay; they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy – When people are self-directed and engaged, they do wonderful things. Management needs to get out of their way.

Mastery – People have an urge to get better at stuff. We do it not to get wealthy, but because it’s satisfying. Technically-sophisticated highly skilled people all over the world are working for free. (e.g., Linux, Apache, Wikipedia). Challenge and mastery are great motivators.

Purpose – When profit becomes unhitched from purpose, the results are uninspired workplaces and people don’t do great things. Flourishing companies are animated by purpose.

I like that I am part of an organization that aspires for every student, faculty, and staff member to “meet the highest standards of academic achievement, character, conscience and compassion.” It seems they know something about what I have learned over the past year about motivation, being a lifelong learner, and 21st century learning for all students.

Now, my question is, can I apply the motivating qualities of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to my full-time teaching job with 7th and 8th graders?

Autonomy – Can I get out of their way and let them make decisions on how and what to learn? Hmm…I’m not sure. We have the Iowa Core/Common Core hanging over our classrooms, feeling stifled at times. However, I believe there is freedom built into the standards. I know my 7th and 8th graders cannot be as autonomous as adults who have already found their way into engaging and meaningful careers. I still have to offer some structure. As Steve Hargadon recently said at #ITEC11, “When we balance structure and freedom, we unleash individual energy and potential.” I am working on what that balance of structure and freedom looks like in my classroom.

Mastery – If I manage to give them some autonomy in choosing their way, then the projects they are working on should be things they are motivated to do well and get good at.

Purpose – Education can be purposeful. It has to be for more than the grades they earn on their report cards. What a lame excuse for a motivator! I tell my students, if it’s only about grades for them, then let’s just all pack up and go home now.

We just finished a wonderful “unit” in 8th grade exploratory, where students planned and accomplished a Relay Recess for all the students in K-8 in our school system. Talk about purposeful! They were motivated! They were given lots of autonomy in the planning (along with the ready support of four of their teachers), they were given time to pull it off with excellence (mastery), and the purpose was obvious when we saw the wonderful time that was had by the K-8 students, survivors and other guests. (More posting on our American Cancer Society fundraisers and the Relay Recess later.)

What do you think?

Can we give students meaningful work all the time so that these intrinsic motivators guide them? Rather than the “payment” of the grades on their report card?

Here is the Dan Pink video. It’s really enlightening!

5 thoughts on “Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

  1. Hi Denise,

    You’ve asked some very important and complex questions! What do I think about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation in relationship to grades?

    When I was still in the classroom, I sometimes heard others say, “Tracy, you don’t have behavior problems in your class, so you don’t understand what I’m dealing with here…” My question back was, “Why don’t I have behavior problems?” The answer was the intrinsic motivation. Our class projects were relevant to them, they had choices, they were allowed to voice their opinions, and they would be heard, so why would they want to misbehave — the were loving learning. The students were actively part of the grading process too. They would give me feedback on what worked and what could be improved. They knew I was comfortable not having all the answers, and they also knew that I believed they did have the answers amongst themselves.

    In my class, I still had extrinsics, but that was usually in the form of specific praise as feedback. Isn’t that what good teachers do? There was a balance between that specific and positive feedback, and then a guiding question to help them take their next step. For example, “Great work on working together to organize your plan. I believe your group has done a fabulous job organizing who is going to work on which part because it matches your strengths. (Then I’d give a specific example of how it matched their strengths). — What I’m wondering is …? Or, have you considered …?” Those questions I’d give them would help them think through the next step, but it was coming from them and not me telling them what to do next. It was their project, and they had to grapple with those things. My role was to help them through the process, know when to step in, and know when to let them work through it. It required being in tune to everything they were doing, but not directing it.

    My students always knew what their grades were because it was part of the feedback. If it was a direct instruction lesson (still with lots of differentiation built into it), I would put stars on the correct answers (feedback), and if there wasn’t a star, they knew they had to try again. So, that gave them specific feedback on what was correct, and I wouldn’t have to regrade anything because I knew which ones I’ve seen. If it was a project, then they knew the rubric ahead of time (and sometimes helped create it with me), and our conversation would always reflect on that. So, if it were turned in at this moment, here’s the score it would get, but more importantly the conversation was about what was successful, what could be improved, and what the next step would be.

    Everything was centered around their learning. I cared about their success, and it was about developing their passions and voices. (Here’s an example of one of the projects we did with my 5th graders — See the “Student Strengths” one).

    Thanks for asking those big questions. I love these discussions!

    Kind regards,

  2. Hi,
    I am a student at the University of South Alabama, where I’m currently taking EDM 310 with Dr. Strange. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I think that this is a great post and I must say that I agree with everything in your blog.

    1. Hi Latisha,
      It is nice to have you come back to my blog. What do you think about grading. Do grades motivate you to learn now? Did they motivate you in high school? What helps you to be an active and engaged learner in college? I would be interested in your thoughts.

  3. Tracy,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and engaging comment. I have been reading it and thinking about it for two days now. Engaged students are what it is all about. How can we go wrong?

    I know we are in an educational revolution. We are torn between standards-based, tested education and freedom for kids to love education and become engaged life-long learners. I also know these two are not necessarily mutual-exclusive. It seems like your experience is a good one to show that students can be held responsible (and hold themselves responsible), and, at the same time, be engaged in using their strengths to engage in and change the world for the better.

    Thanks again for sharing, Tracy!

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