The fiction of most school mission statements

Over at the PsyBlog, they note that there are only two reasons why we do anything:

  1. Because we want to
  2. Because someone else wants us to

The former is what we term intrinsic motivation. The latter is what we call extrinsic motivation.

Summarizing the work of the famous motivation researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the PsyBlog folks state that three factors are at the core of intrinsic motivation:

  1. Competence. We want to be good at something. Things that are too easy, though, don’t give us a sense of competence; it has to be just hard enough.
  2. Autonomy. We want to be free and dislike being controlled. When people have some freedom – even within certain non-negotiable boundaries – they are more likely to thrive.
  3. Relatedness. As social animals we want to feel connected to other people.

Watch Daniel Pink’s RSA video and notice how similar these are to the factors outlined in his book, Drive, of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy. Mastery/competence. Purpose. Relatedness. These are four principles around which we can build powerful learning environments for students. They also are four principles which are violated nearly every single day in most classrooms in America. Ask yourself these questions about your own classrooms:

  • Autonomy: Do students have freedom to make meaningful choices in school, and does that freedom increase as they get older? Or are they told what to do almost every minute of every day?
  • Mastery/competence: Do students want to be good at the things that we ask them to do in school? Or do they just do those things because we ask or force them? Do students get to work at their optimal level of challenge? Or do they have to do the same things as everyone else, regardless of their own learning needs and readiness?
  • Purpose: Do students see the meaning and relevance of what we ask them to do in school? Or do they struggle to see the authenticity and purpose of the things that we have them do?
  • Relatedness: Do students get to connect and collaborate with others in meaningful ways in school? Or do they primarily do their own work in isolation from others?

Reading over these questions, it’s easy to see why students are disengaged from the learning tasks that we give them. The big question is whether we care. So far, most of our school systems don’t seem too bothered by their environmental deficiencies when it comes to fostering internal motivation.

Our actions put the lie to our school mission statements that state that we’re about creating “self-motivated, life-long learners.” The result is that

most of what [our students] experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere. . . .

And, worst of all, by the time our kids have reached fourth or fifth grade, they think what they are experiencing in school is normal. [Robert Fried, The Game of School, p. 1]

As school leaders and classroom teachers, how long can we continue to ignore core principles of intrinsic motivation?

5 Responses to “The fiction of most school mission statements”

  1. Another question we might ask, Scott, is why do we ignore principles of intrinsic motivation? And that question leads us to ask, “Are we aware of the principles of intrinsic motivation, and if not, why?” And finally, how can we best bring these principles up on “educator radar” and deliver the PD necessary to engage educators and produce lasting change?

  2. Dear Hugh,

    Possible answers to your questions: 1) we don’t know them, 2) No because we don’t read or learn and in order to learn from our reading or our experience we must think, 3) let me refer you to the beginning of the post “…there are only two reasons why we do anything: 1. Because we want to and 2) Because someone else wants us to. If we don’t want to, we won’t think or learn. Was Russell right? “Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so.” –Bertrand Russell

  3. Hey Cal, I once wrote a post called “Help Wanted: Teachers Who Read.” ( ) because I was frustrated that folks have a hard time figuring things out for themselves, i.e., keep up with professional literature in, for my blog post example, grading. Doctors and lawyers do, right? At least we hope so. But a lawyer friend of mine, who clued me in on the amount of annual PD he’s required to take by the Oregon State Bar, let me know that – surprise! — 80% of the PD they’re exposed to in their field is just as crappy as most of what passes for PD in education.

    I wouldn’t let teachers off so easily with a cynical quote from Russell, as much as I respect him as a thinker, but if you want a really cynical quote, how about “…those who can’t teach, teach teachers…”? Haven’t you had a “sage on the stage” tell you how to engage kids while boring you with a lousy PPT and lecture? I’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to and engaged by PD teachers who practiced what they preached and got their messages across loud and clear, with good example to follow. Perhaps you’ve seen them too.

    Scott’s question is only the beginning of the conversation. The real question is not how to get teachers to teacher better, but how to get the teachers of teachers to teach teachers better with examples of teaching teachers can follow.

    I don’t know all the answers…all I can do is share what I do with folks who are interested. And like anything else worth a hoot, it takes time to build a critical mass (buzz).

    Rick Stiggins of Assessment Training Institute has said that the best classroom assessments are the one’s kids don’t want to miss. Shouldn’t we apply the same reasoning to teacher PD?

    • Hi Hugh, I love your quote “those who can’t teach, teach teachers” I too have been on often (expensive) PD where the “sage on the stage” is talking “at us” about being a “guide on the side”, totally oblivious to the contradiction they are modelling. I believe students are open to learning, but are their teachers and their teachers, teachers?

  4. 1)Isn’t it really the case that extrinsic motivation is merely an illusion – the only reason we do things is to maximise our own levels of satisfaction, although that satisfaction may indeed result from deriving the approval or avoiding the disapprobation of others?
    2)My experience in coaching students who struggle at school is that mastery/competence and purpose are the really important areas to address. Almost every youngster I have helped has deep down wanted to master their subject – for various internal and/or external motivations. The reason most of them have not been able to is that they have failed to appreciate – have not been shown – the reasons behind the nuts-and-bolts stuff. And then it is all too easy to disengage, to lose confidence and to become frightened of the subject. Help them to see some of the bigger picture and watch the light come on behind the eyes…

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