today’s thought . . . .

What would universities, departments, classes look like if they were organized, as Daniel H. Pink suggests, around the principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose?  What would our research or our teaching look like in such a setting, and what kind of work would we invite our students to produce?


PS: As I write this, I am thoroughly aware that much of the chatter about education, whether neoliberal or conservative, seems completely unaware of the complexities of motivation, either from the students’ or the teachers’ perspective.  But it’s high time for this problem of motivation to be brought into the discussion of learning and incentives.


10 responses to “today’s thought . . . .

  1. Oh yeah. Fortunately, some teachers and students are motivated by mastery, and some by autonomy. Unfortunately, in a first moment some students and teachers take autonomy and use it to reject mastery.

  2. Dave Mazella

    That’s what the “purpose” term is for: to take up those who would choose one over the other (mastery over autonomy, or vice versa) and force them into a dialectic between the two. It’s the one notion that would force people into thinking about something besides themselves and their desires.

  3. Which brings us back to Dewey, or Freire. Purposes can also be selfish, but I’m not convinced the big shiny ones like citizenship and liberation have much general traction. Any thoughts on what might work in the mid-range?

  4. Dave Mazella

    Those are good questions, Carl, and I agree that Pink is singing from the inquiry-based learning hymnal. However, like any good rhetorician (he was, as someone points out, a professional speech-writer), he’s good at pointing out what’s getting neglected in the current discussion.

    I honestly believe that most teaching takes place without a purpose, because purpose presupposes a certain level of reflective thought and deliberate arrangement that lines up the students’ learning experience with particular values. I just attended a teaching workshop, though, that pointed out that one of the fundamental principles of adult learning is that adult learners have to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Unlike the youngsters, who still retain the K-12 assumption that all learning is meaningless and arbitrary, adults tend to demand reasons for what they’re asked to do, at least in educational contexts. So can we say for now that the purpose is the “why?” of the course content?

    I agree that the top range of values are surprisingly ineffective when dealing with the challenges of the classroom. But I’d bet that the best courses have nested purposes that fit within each other and scale the course content upwards and outwards, from the most basic “skill” acquisition to the most recondite forms of synthesis, analysis, and judgment.

    My Swift intro to literary studies course began as a gateway course to literary studies, but it quickly developed additional purposes on the lower end, as it began to take on issues of information literacy, reading skills, and research process, and it developed a stronger identity as a set of reflections on the genre of satire as a vehicle for Enlightenment responses to ideology, hegemony, and technology.

    So perhaps the middle range of purposes can be established by the course content, and how it links to the academic skills necessary for it to be learned and used by real live students, as well as the content’s relation to the live intellectual, moral, social, and political questions and concerns of the students and instructor? In a successful course, that’s what I think is happening.


  5. Yes, thank you Dave. Now that I’ve had a chance to watch Pink’s video I see the point he’s making about the narrow and often counterproductive effects of extrinsic motivational strategies. There’s another popularizing thread of this kind of analysis coming from a guy named Yochlai Benkler. I did a post awhile back riffing on him and the theme of self-interest.

    This collates in an interesting way with an argument Richard Shweder makes in Why Do Men Barbecue (which I’m working with this semester in my gender class) that cross-culturally there are three basic domains of moral concern: autonomy, community and divinity. He thinks autonomy is important but fatally thin as an exclusive moral focus. I think he’d argue that the problem with individual reward incentives as purposes for performance is that they feed back into the individualism of autonomy, and ultimately fail because they can’t connect to anything larger than the self. Only community and divinity can do that.

  6. Dave Mazella

    I appreciate the idea that autonomy could become too thin to serve as a moral focus, but I also think that if we are thinking how people really regard workplaces, the notion of a “community” includes things like norms of fairness, equitable treatment, and compensation, even if these are not done strictly extrinsic-style rewards. “Teamwork” is a great value in the workplace, but I’m assuming there are all sorts of practical limits to how it operates.

    I’m also assuming that even in highly functional workplaces (and how many schools or universities could be described this way?), that some intermediate notion of “professionalism” (=the norms of one’s professional or disciplinary community) becomes at least as important as individual autonomy. As for divinity, I wonder if charter schools or religious K-12 schools have better, more coherent internal organizations than other kinds of schools? I don’t think the model could be extended to religious colleges, but who knows?

  7. Right, I think all the stuff you’ve said here about the mid-range and multiple motivations is right on the money. Reminds me of Durkheim’s argument in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals that there has to be a layer of communitarian conventions and institutions to support them between the individual and the state.

    Durkheim and Shweder mean something broader than organized religion and more concrete than ‘spirituality’ by divinity; basically it’s that which we take to be sacred. How to organize and channel that domain of experience without an explicitly religious orientation can be tricky, though. If our sense of the sacred emerges from group dynamics, whether love affairs, sporting events or patriotism, it should be possible to think classroom dynamics in this way; although maybe creepy.

  8. Dave Mazella

    Hmm. My immediate response is to say that the post-19c university has become the place where the sacred is to be studied, dissected, analyzed, or historically traced, but not conveyed or reproduced. In literature departments, for example, the notion of literary studies as the mere transmission of valued works across time seems naive (literary scholarship is based, after all, in research rather than appreciation or connoisseurship). This might help explain your observation about the potential “creepiness” of such group activities. I can’t say that I’m comfortable, either, with a notion of a sacralized object in my teaching.

    I suspect that what now substitutes for the “sacred” in most humanities classrooms is either a Foucauldean sense of ethics or some version of activist politics. In either case, it’s the sense that the study somehow gets incorporated into the life of the student in some way. But either of these options could be considered too thin to really compete with divinity.

  9. It’s a puzzle. The mid-range skill/concern/interest motives and partisan activist ethics are so easy to boil down to utilitarian instrumentalism, at which point there’s an awkward conversation about what exactly our lit and history courses add to the diploma credential. But again the big shiny motives don’t have universal traction either, failing a return to the elite monoculture model of education. Are we agreeing there’s not a one-size solution and that flexible, layered motivation has to be assembled from the ground up out of the inputs and dynamics of each group? It seems like such a wifty conclusion but I don’t see a way around it.

    • Dave Mazella

      I think it’s possible to pull two lessons away from this thread:

      1) I think that we are both taking up the position that motivations for learning at the micro-, mid-, and macro-level cannot be lined up in advance of, or apart from, the specificities of the “content.” In addition, these mid-level motivators are inextricably caught up with lower-level questions of skills you need and the upper-level questions of values. This is what I was meant when I wrote that “the middle range of purposes can be established by the course content, and how it links to the academic skills necessary for it to be learned and used by real live students, as well as the content’s relation to the live intellectual, moral, social, and political questions and concerns of the students and instructor.”

      2) I think the problem with most of the “justifications for the humanities” books I’ve seen (like Garber’s) is the nostalgia for what you call the “elite monoculture model of education” or the “one size fits all” justification of the humanities for everyone. In the absence of such conditions, what kinds of justifications can be made? Unfortunately, these books exist in a realm of abstraction that does not explain why anyone would devote their lives to their studies, nor do they explain how novices might benefit from exposure to their fields. Not that anyone has devised better general arguments. So maybe these kinds of arguments need to be done at the level of testimonials, first-person accounts or autobiographies that accept the contingency of the field’s entry into someone’s life. But I don’t think our disciplines are benefited by the banality of most of these arguments . . . .