How can we know how to motivate students for different kinds of tasks?

One reason, perhaps the primary reason, that teachers explore connections between video games and education lies in their longing for students who display gamer-like motivation. What Shakespeare professor doesn’t want students as eager to construct Renaissance London as SimCity?

In his TEDTalk on motivation (a precursor to his recent book Drive), Dan Pink outlines some social scientific studies of motivation. Pink summarizes his argument in this short CNN piece:

In laboratory experiments and field studies, a band of psychologists, sociologists and economists have found that many carrot-and-stick motivators — the elements around which we build most of our businesses and many of our schools — can be effective, but that they work in only a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.

For enduring motivation, the science shows, a different approach is more effective. This approach draws not on our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but on what we might think of as our third drive: Our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

In particular, high performance — especially for the complex, conceptual tasks we’re increasingly doing on the job — depends far more on intrinsic motivators than on extrinsic ones.

If I want my students to focus on their own “complex, conceptual tasks,” I need to consider ways to activate their drive to “create new things,” and I want those things not only to be the occasional essay but also initiatives that shape the classroom experience fundamentally.

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