In David Brook’s new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, Brooks argues, by synthesizing research from a number of different fields, that humans are not as purely driven by rational thinking and IQ as has been the conventional wisdom. In an essay in the New Yorker outlining his main points, Brooks describes “Harold’s” connection with a teacher, reporting that he was influenced not so much by the content that she taught, but by “the way she thought [and] the style of learning she fostered.”
Ms. Taylor was always reminding the class of how limited her grasp of any situation was. “Sorry, I get distracted easily,” she’d say, or, “Sorry, sometimes I jump to conclusions too quickly.” In this way, she communicated the distinction between mental strength (the processing power of the brain) and mental character (the mental virtues that lead to practical wisdom). She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases. (full disclosure – I have not read the book, but have read Brook’s Op Ed piece from the NY Times, and have read the New Yorker article as well.)
Brooks stresses that we are much more governed by our unconscious minds and our emotional connections than we ever thought. We learn and are inspired those by people and circumstances that appeal to our emotions much more than our rational thought.
In Daniel Pink’s new book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” he also examines what motivates people. Rather than money, he argues, people are motivated to work when given autonomy, mastery and purpose for their work. Again, I have only read excerpts from the book, and watched the RSA rendition of a talk he gave (see below).
As teachers, we think about this research in terms of students in our class. Of course we’re not going to pay them, but we want to know what really motivates them. In the past, that motivation may have come from home, or tradition, that led students to “do the work” so that they could get the grades and move on to college and a good job. Now, students seem to be differently motivated – family and social pressures are no longer enough. The argument portends relatively easy fixes, however. Maybe letting a student pick a lab partner, or ask his own research question would be enough.
As a school administrator, I think about this research in terms of motivating teachers to undertake challenging work to meet the needs of these newly motivated students by tapping into what motivates the teachers to begin with. In my professional network, much has been made of Nicholas Kristof’s Op Ed piece with a call to pay teachers more in order to attract better teachers. While I understand that pay equals status in the US, most teachers I know were attracted to the profession to inspire young people to lead the country, and the world, well. They are in it for grass roots change and to ensure in the smooth running of our democracy by a well-educated public. Yes, teachers should get fairly compensated for their work, but offering more pay in and of itself might not be the answer.
Both of my sisters are elementary school teachers who started their careers, as I did, because we thought we had something to offer. Teaching allowed us to be creative, thoughtful, innovative, and, yes, sometimes silly. Now, however, both sisters are contemplating leaving the profession. Their rigorous, standards-based, collaborative lessons and units that used to keep them up all hours of the night to create have been replaced by District and state-level mandates about what and how they should teach so that their students will do well on bubble-in standardized tests of, basically, rote facts. The more education is reduced to repetitive, “teacherless” tasks, the harder it will be to attract creative, inspired and inspiring teachers.
Taking the research of Brooks and Pink, educators are given to understand that we need to find new ways of motivating our students to learn, as Tony Wagner puts it, “the survival skills deemed necessary in the 21st century work force.” In order to do that, those of us responsible for the training, development and nurturing of teachers need to motivate innovation by giving teachers time and opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. Teachers are not motivated by a high test score on a test they didn’t help create, nor are they motivated by a drive-by evaluation by an administrator who visits their class once a year. On the other hand, they may be inspired by helping students show mastery on complex, teacher developed tasks, or by an administrator acting as a colleague, collaborating, supporting and nurturing ideas. Simply offering teachers more money, or mandating reforms without appealing to the emotions that drive them, will not work.