cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Monday, July 23, 2012

TMC 12 SESSION: Increasing intrinsic motivation using the ideas in Dan Pink's Drive

Dan Pink's bestselling book Drive: ___  has given the business world new ways to think about increasing intrinsic motivation in the workplace, but his ideas have resonance in math education too. The purpose of my Twitter Math Camp 12 session was to summarize the main ideas in Drive and to talk about how I have applied them to the specific situation of the math classroom.

In the model he sets out, Pink presents three fundamental pillars of intrinsic motivation:
  • AUTONOMY, which he defines as "behaving with a full sense of volition and choice” as opposed to feeling pushed around by “external pressure toward specific outcomes” (Drive, p. 88). 
  • MASTERY, which is a growth mindset in the model of Carol Dweck's work, a way of thinking about one's work that requires both effort and engagement. He also describes mastery as "an asymptote," an impulse that moves toward an ideal of perfect oneness without ever fully achieving it (Drive, pp. 118, 122, & 124).
  • PURPOSE, a sense of being connected to the why of what one is doing (Drive, p. 233).
All three of these elements support the development of FLOW — a profound human state of "optimal experience" which was first studied in depth by the renowned psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chick-sent-me-high").

Flow is what many of us who teach math feel when we lose ourselves in doing mathematics, and my argument in this presentation is that helping our students to experience the flow state while they're doing math should be our top priority when thinking about motivation.

We can help students tap into the flow state by using Pink's three elements of intrinsic motivation to create "on ramps" for students to the flow experience.

PURPOSE is a terrific building block for many of our most capable students, but for the discouraged or disengaged student, it is necessary but not sufficient. What Can You Do With This?, Three-Act Digital Problems, and AnyQs? activities can be helpful in cultivating a sense of purpose in students, but it is important to keep in mind that there are other factors — including social, emotional, and psychological factors — at work with our most discouraged students.

Using a Standards-Based Grading framework helps students understand talk about MASTERY by clarifying expectations and improving communication between and among students, teachers, and parents.

AUTONOMY is the hardest of the three elements to encourage, so I spent most of my talk about ways to develop a sense of autonomy with math students.

There are two parts to autonomy: (1) an outer component and (2) an inner component. The EXTERNAL part can be built up by disrupting student expectations through alternative  activity structures. Games, game-like activity structures, treasure hunts, creating foldables, making up dances or songs, creating and performing skits or puppet shows that demonstrate definitions or processes, and other such reframing activities redirect student attention away from what causes them anxiety or trauma and toward something that allows them to relax and let doing mathematics be simply a means to an end. REFRAMING can be a crucial part of helping students find themselves in flow while doing mathematics.

The INTERNAL component of boosting autonomy has to do with helping students to NOTICE their fears or reactive responses and ALLOWING there to be space for their authentic feelings and conditioned reactions. We can support students by not taking their reactions/reflexes personally and by noticing our own reactions/reflexive responses to different kinds of disengagement we experience from students. Encouraging a posture of noticing and allowing enables us to help students loosen their identification with past negative experiences and open up space for newer, positive experiences to overwrite those in their minds and bodies.

By honoring and encouraging the flow state in our students while they are engaged in mathematics, we can help them to renegotiate their relationship with math class. And that creates space for the positive and self-reinforcing intrinsic motivation that will help them get out of their own way and find lifelong success with mathematics.


  1. I agree, I want all of my kids to get to the flow state, but boy is that hard to do with an entire class. It is encouraging that I do many of these things already, but now I want to read Dan Pink's book. Thanks for the tips.

  2. I'm so glad you put this up. I couldn't digest it all during your talk (and was too out of it to take notes) and need to revisit the ideas. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for posting. I was at the other session and heard wonderful things about your presentation.

  4. Ditto to Kate... I read part of Drive but had trouble continuing (I think I picked a bad time to read it) so this really helps me digest it a bit and I think I'll try to read again/finish... Oooorrrr I could get you to read all the books I want to and get you to summarize them.

  5. Excellent letter to the New York Times about why carrots and sticks don't work for teachers, referencing Dan Pink's Drive and his three pillars of intrinsic motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose, for those who appreciate repetition). Worth a read.

  6. External autonomy... giving options e.g. "do any 7 of these exercises" makes my learners happy and they usually pick what they need to do. I need to give them this option more often.

    What you wrote about intrinsic autonomy is a completely new idea to me and fascinating. It rings true. How do you help learners get there?