Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'This R2 unit has a bad motivator'

We're all familiar with the carrot-and-stick approach as our primary motivation tool. We reward someone for doing good work and punish them for delivering something that isn't up to standard or not doing what we wanted of them.

In school, our rewards tend to be good grades, a glowing testimonial and maybe the occasional citation or cash incentive for exceptional performance. Undesirable behaviour, on the other hand, is punished with personal audiences with increasing levels of the campus heierarchy, discussions with parents, Corrective Work Orders, threats of repeating a year or a 'recommendation to seek educational instruction at an alternative institution'.

Daniel Pink, in Drive, calls this practice Motivation 2.0. Much of our workflow systems and even our economy itself is largely based on this model, and it's been very successful so far in moving us along. Motivation 2.0 is an excellent tool for mechanical, routine tasks. Nobody wants to do them, so offering people a decent exchange for their time and effort is the only way we can shoehorn human resources into our assembly-line industries.

Problem is that our economy no longer relies on routine mass-order jobs. Our employment opportunities are now shifting towards knowledge, service and creative 'products' where we have an edge over our more labour-intensive neighbouring economies. Good as 2.0 is in replicating a compliant, narrow-skilled workforce for the industrial economy, for tasks involving thinking and complex problem-solving, 2.0 doesn't work. Throwing in more money isn't going to make solving problems easier or faster. Pink even suggests that these material rewards might even be a de-motivational factor because it raises the pressure to get the task done (reward conditional to successful delivery) and it makes people work towards what the money's worth and no further. If this sounds like what schools are like today, that's because we are still following the 2.0 model, and yet are supposed to be grooming capable workers for the new economy.

Drive advocates an upgrade to Motivation 3.0, detailing scientific and behavioral studies; and case studies of successful corporations that have adopted this new approach. One of Pink's best examples is that Microsoft Encarta (an attempt at creating and maintaining a pay-to-use online encyclopaedia) which had a huge financial backing and lots of talented employees closed down after a few years of operation, whereas a loose organization with the same goals but having no paid management, no paid employees and no for-profit motive has become Wikipedia, one of the most-referred to and relied upon websites today.

The 3.0 model emphasizes autonomy, mastery and purpose as the prime movers of human achievement. Autonomy being the divestment of superfluous supervision over the worker and the work; mastery as in putting in time and effort to get good at a skill or skill-set; and purpose as in having a sustainable, believable and realistic rationale for doing the work in the first place.

I'm looking at my students past and future. Most of them came from 2.0 schools, and even when they arrive at our doorstep we still keep them suppressed under 2.0 principles. We complain about how unmotivated they are, how slow they are to absorb new ideas and concepts, how frustrated we are that they keep making the same mistakes even though we've corrected them time and time again. We run our education like a factory churning out neatly packaged mass products but we also realize that each student is an individual with individual learning needs and hence requires a personally customized instructional programme in order to develop each potential, like we promise to. That's quite the dilemma, isn't it, trying to meet 3.0 demands with 2.0 structures?

Our biggest problem with 3.0 is in the first pillar: autonomy. I'm not talking about staff autonomy because one of the reasons why I enjoy my work on campus is that I have loads of autonomy to run my classes and other programmes the way I want. I'm talking about the kids and how we have to monitor them, guide them, discipline them, safeguard them, and sic their parents on them (if necessary) their whole two years with us. I'm talking about not trusting them to do the right thing, and likewise them not trusting themselves, coming from environments that didn't trust them either. It's going to be difficult if I apply 3.0 while the rest of their subject tutors still manage them with 2.0, the way they're used to. The kids are so conditioned under survival 2.0 they don't see the higher purpose of 3.0 as a necessary or even a worthwhile aim. Avoiding a shelling will always win out over reaching for higher goals.

I'm absolutely sure 3.0 works. The kids in Drama Club grow and develop so many skills so quickly because they have the autonomy to do what they need to do to get their show on the road. They dedicate themselves to mastering stagecraft, turning in long rehearsals above and beyond their regular scheduled schoolwork and working with a true master of the craft like Tina or Rods. And they have a purpose to turn in a performance they can be proud of for our annual Drama Night or national competition. But these same kids are often in trouble in class because 2.0 just isn't adequate to motivate them to do as well in their academic obligations.

Working in an organization so firmly entrenched in 2.0, can there be a transitional step, a 2.5 that I can at least start on? Or have I been stuck on 2.5 all along? Whatever it is, it's time to throw a bigger rock into the pond. Our collective futures could well depend on it.

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