Here’s Dan Pink talking at TED about studies of reward and motivation, which show that rewards can be very motivating for simple, rote tasks, but can actually work against motivation for complex, creative tasks. He argues that what motivates people for “21st century” work environments are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. One company gives its engineers a full day, every so often, to work on anything they want, but they all share at the end. And a huge number of their innovations and solutions come from those days. Google employees famously get “twenty percent time” to do whatever they want – with whomever they want, using whatever techniques they want. And again, a huge number of their innovations come out of the projects that begin in twenty percent time.

What would autonomy, mastery, and purpose look like in a middle school environment? Could we give kids 1 school day, say, once per semester, and allow them to work alone or in groups of their choice, with as much or as little help as desired, to do whatever interests them most? What about a whole school week, twice a year, or the afternoons of a whole school week, or the mornings, or one day every week, or one afternoon every week? With the only real requirements related to supervision and safety, and sharing what you produce at a specified time? Even if we embraced this idea, would we truly be comfortable with what this might look like for some kids? Would be comfortable with unfinished projects? With abandoned ideas? With projects that looked like play? With the inevitable, occasional slacking? With truly interdisciplinary projects? With not knowing at the start of the day or the hour what our job, as teachers, was going to involve?


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