Drive by Daniel Pink

Educational Internship Program Book Study

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Review of Drive by Daniel Pink

I chose to read Drive by Daniel Pink for selfish reasons. Motivation plagues teachers on a personal and student level. How do we get motivated to prepare lessons or grade papers when we’re just not in the mood to do much of anything? Or when we’re too overwhelmed by state and district initiatives to even think about our daily work in the classroom. How do we motivate students to listen to lessons or write papers when they are busy with work and sports and countless hours of homework in other classes? These are questions that plague most educators, especially the issue of motivating students. But instead of trying to figure out what makes students tick, I’ve heard many teachers lament, “My students just won’t do that—even if I give them class time” or “My students only care if I put points in the gradebook” or even worse “My students can’t do that.” Can we be effective teachers if we have these thoughts running through our heads? Probably not. Daniel Pink to the rescue.



Pink’s book is about motivation in general, and he reflects quite a bit on the business world and occasionally on the educational realm. As a teacher and former psychology student, all of his words resonated and caused me to reflect in many different ways. Pink expands on Alfie Kohn’s idea that if a child won’t or can’t do a task, the problem is lies with the task, not with the student. Pink makes a strong case that it isn’t just the task that matters; the reward being given for task completion is even more important.


People can be motivated to do anything with the right reinforcement…and that is almost never points in the gradebook. In fact, points in the gradebook will only work to motivate students to do the most menial of tasks (think envelope stuffing in the business world). Do we want our students participating in menial tasks? Probably not. But when we ask them to memorize vocabulary words or complete X number of math problems (especially when they’ve already mastered the learning concept) or read X number of pages a night so they can take a comprehension quiz, we’ve made our grading system work really, really well because these are just the sort of menial tasks that kids will do for points. And it’s easy to assign points to such meaningless tasks. However, if we want our students to participate in higher level learning, we need to abandon points. If fact, when people are asked to do something meaningful, points or money or other rewards actually discourage them from participating. Pink cites a wonderful study about blood drives. When people are asked to donate blood to help out the community, many volunteer. Offer these volunteers money for donating blood, and many decide to drop out (which may explain why plasma donation centers are considered a little sketchy). Asking kids to do something real in the classroom and presenting them with a point-driving rubric could be demotivating. Once you’ve assured students that their grades will be good, points don’t matter but learning does. Praise and feedback are the best motivators for the 85% of people who are driven by curiosity and a desire to help.


What else can teachers and schools learn from this book? Here are some interesting ideas:

1. Think about what type of homework you’re assigning. Is it busy work or is it engaging? Does it have a purpose? Can students choose how and when to do it?

2. Give students time to focus on something they want to do. Companies that offer employees one day a week (or even a month) to focus on something outside of their everyday job duties have happier, more creative employees who often develop ideas and products that make companies a ton of money.

3. Let students create their own rubrics and grade cards.

4. Praise appropriately. Praise effort (not intelligence), praise privately, praise only when it is deserved, and praise specifically.

If you are ready to rethink how you learn, teach, and assess, Pink’s book is one you should read today. If you are content to watch students fake learn, raid Spark Notes, and constantly badger you to up their grade or argue about why they didn’t get full credit for that last assignment, skip it. You’re not ready yet.


Check out this video for a wonderful overview of motivation:

RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

So how does Drive impact me as a learner?

I love praise. Any principal or student can make me happy by simply telling me that he or she really appreciates X, Y, or Z. And praise is really nice when you always try to do your job. I am not one of those people who tries to cut corners or shirk work, so I get just a little down-hearted when my hard work goes unnoticed. However, like many people who think their jobs and lives involve meaningful tasks, I would probably be resentful if I were offered extra little bonuses for doing the things I am expected to do. I think I would become resentful if I didn't get a bonus, and to be honest, tying certain activities to a bonus would probably make me resent those activities. Take nice notes to students. Each year, I set a goal to write to X number of students or parents (don't feel bad if you haven't received one--I haven't had the time or motivation to do any this year, and that's a big problem). I write nice notes because I want to. If my principal told me I had to write nice notes, I would, but I wouldn't enjoy it as much. Or consider reading a professional development book like Drive. If my principal told me I had to read a book or two each year, I'd wait until the last minute, skim the book, and hope for the best--especially if my principal assigned which book I had to read. I feel good about my job and my learning when I can be in control of it.


As a student, I was/ am pretty good at jumping through hoops though, but I always think of menial tasks as just that: hoops to jump through. My own son was not a good hoop jumper. He did not see the point of coloring pictures in preschool. He did not see the point of writing out the numbers from 1 to 500 when you could just make columns and fill in 0 - 9 again and again. He did not see the point of reading and summarizing everybody books when chapter books were more interesting. He did not see the point of working a math problem out in the required six steps when two would do. In short, he was a curious, intelligent thinker who was not at all motivated by what his teachers were trying to do, nor was he motivated by praise. As a learning parent, I agonized through homework and parent-teacher conferences. What to do with Harrison? I worked extra hard to make Harrison an obedient student, and he has become very conscientious, exactly what we hoped for. Except I think we might have messed up because he no longer gets a kick out of solving complicated math problems in his head, and he isn't trying to learn a goofy fact about each president anymore, and he really, really worries about his grades because I worry about his grades. How did this happen? Well, ultimately, Harrison learned that if he wants to succeed, he has to be a carrot and stick learner. As a learning parent, I need to give myself and my children more creative time, more flexibility to explore what is interesting, not what is necessary, and more of an emphasis on learning for fun. And I probably need to let them make more mistakes as they learn about what motivates them.

How will I apply Drive to my classroom?

I recently heard a teacher say, "Nothing is worth getting upset about. This is easy--just take a step back." I wish I heard more teachers saying this. I think we try to scare students into learning and getting work done--"If you don't get this done on time, you will fail." Why would I want to threaten any student with failure? Why not tell students, "If you learn this, you will succeed"? Teachers are classic stick and carrot people. Do well and you get a good grade (the carrot); do poorly and you fail (the stick). Research tells us that this only works for menial, basic tasks (like envelope stuffing), and the fact that these tasks are menial and basic should be discussed up front. I've done this with students. I've said, "You have to do this worksheet, take this quiz, whatever, but it will be easy points in the gradebook." Why did I do that? Why did I de-emphasize learning? Because I had to give a menial quiz focused on knowledge-level learning. What a disservice to my students.


When I taught at the middle level, I felt like I had gotten pretty good at taking out the menial tasks. The Common Core State Standards helped with that because they focus on higher level learning. Students worked really hard to master Rasinski-style vocabulary quizzes, and even the most struggling students wanted that advanced score on the next standards assessment. This level of engagement was in stark comparison to my first six years of teaching. During those years, I focused on comprehension assessments for short stories and novels with an over-emphasis on preparing for the MAP test. Unfortunately, I found myself drifting to those old habits when I moved to the high school level because I was not as familiar with the 9th -12th grade Common Core State Standards and because most of our common assessments were knowledge or comprehension level multiple choice quizzes. We are making progress, but it's been hard to think of engaging learning activities at this level. I also feel as if making learning "easy" isn't very acceptable at this level. But why shouldn't learning be easy? Why do classes need to be stressful to be considered rigorous? I believe my job as a teacher is to take that difficult concept and make it accessible for all my students. And once they've experienced success, perhaps they will be motivated to learn more in the future.


As a teacher, I will continue to de-emphasize grades in favor or emphasizing thinking, learning, and the mastery of standards. I would also like to have students choose their own learning paths by developing some of their own scoring guides. I need to work more on the issue of student choice in multiple ways, andI have begun this journey with our free reading days. And the results have been promising. When given time to read any book they want, most students will read.


Last year, one of my students said, "All teachers in this school care about are points in the gradebook. No one cares about learning." I want my students to say, "She really cared about my learning, my progress, my ideas, my feelings, my family, my writing." Isn't that what every teacher wants?

Questions that keep running through my head...

1. Is standards-based grading the answer to combatting motivation problems at the high school level? I feel like my students are more motivated when they have a goal (or a standard) to reach, and many will work hard to meet that goal. I feel like learning flounders when I start doing EOC-style questions (multiple choice). That’s when I hear statements like, “As long as I get 6 or more right, I’m good.” I would love to hear Pink’s thoughts on standards-based grading or Marzano’s thoughts on Drive.


2. Are some personality-types destined to be motivated only by monetary rewards? Are these people destined to work in jobs that require a rote skill set? Is there anything wrong with that?


3. Does tracking decrease engagement and motivation? Could students be tracked based on motivation? I've had plenty of really hard-working, motivated students who were not great at English. Is placing them in a non-advanced class going to make them better at English? Probably not.


4. How does the idea of merit pay fit into Pink's ideas on motivation? It seems like it doesn't at all, so why do legislators keep bringing it up. A better idea might be to up teacher qualifications and standards and pay teachers more (an idea that Pink often discusses).