Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A modern problem meets ancient wisdom?

I’ve been puzzling on reconciling what the research says about motivation and how to enact it at my workplace.  For this I am indebted to the work of Dan Pink and his book “Drive”.  For those not familiar with the book I’d suggest you can get a more than adequate overview from this RSA animation of his TED talk.

Pink identifies three prime motivators - autonomy, mastery and purpose.  
Teachers should have little trouble with a sense of purpose; surely the profession is one of the most noble and worthy of all?  If a teacher doesn’t feel a sense of purpose then perhaps he or she is in the wrong job.
The desire to master a task is also easily embedded within teaching.  Who can honestly say that they can not improve their practice? Who can not improve their ICT skills, or their questioning ability, or the inclusiveness of their lessons? Teachers have almost limitless opportunities to improve their practice - and the day when they believe otherwise is the day they are in the wrong job.
Autonomy, however, creates some issues for schools. How do we grant teachers genuine autonomy in an environment of regulation, mandated assessment, school wide procedures and protocols that dictate the shape of lessons and learning experiences?   A common response is to say that staff are consulted and included in new school initiatives but then adherence and a common response is required. This is often seen as acceptable since the staff had the input into the decision making process.  But is this “input” enough - or even real?

The economic realities of life are such that most teachers need a job - and disagreeing with the administration of a school can require real strength of character - and perhaps tenure. I recall being at meetings where principals have discussed using “guided democracy” to get the staff to make the decision that they wanted. I recall countless planning meetings designed to shift teacher understanding to where school management believed teachers needed to be.  In short, staff meetings can be subtly directed to arrive at the destination that the leadership wants. However, such processes only produce superficial compliance; genuine commitment to the concepts being discussed is often lacking.

All of this leads us to a situation where the scope for teachers having significant autonomy is limited.  Increasingly teachers have little control over the content of what they teach - and the process by which they teach can also be either “guided” or mandated.  Which means that teachers end up with minimal genuine autonomy.

Yet how can it be otherwise? Effective schools are more than a series of classrooms sharing the same building. A common framework allows  schools to operate in a coordinated manner, to structure activities in a way that allows efficient teaching.  A common approach in many areas is not only sensible but essential. So, schools with clear direction regarding curriculum content and a commitment to “best practice” methods are understandable - in fact, desirable.  Where does this leave teacher autonomy?

Good schools need structure...but passionate teachers need a degree of autonomy.

This is where shared vision becomes essential - not a veneer, not an engineered process with a pre-determined outcome, not merely a collection of protocols..  Teachers who share the vision of the school will feel more control over their efforts. In schools with a shared vision and mindset teachers will have a sense of autonomy - they will feel as if they are working towards goals and objectives that they themselves value.  The fact that the teacher in the next classroom is making the same decisions will be insignificant, for each will be working towards achieving their goals.

When schools do not really listen we end up with a mismatch in vision between the school and at least some of the teachers who teach there. If Daniel Pink is right, this will lead to teachers not feeling in control of their actions, to teachers who lack a sense of autonomy.  And a lack of autonomy leads to a decrease in “drive”.  In the school context this manifests as mediocrity, of minimum standards rather than striving for excellence.Surely this leads school management with a paradox? To create group consensus  we need to genuinely listen to the voices of the individuals within that group. We need to establish our shared values, we need to be clear about our shared vision - for these things guide the fundamental direction and actions of the school.  It is the values and aspirations of the teachers who drive classrooms.  If we want teachers with drive we need teachers with vision - a vision they truly share with other teachers in the school.

Creating a situation where teachers can drive their own classroom in the direction that the system dictates is a challenging task for educational administrators. It reminds me of the adage taken from ancient spiritual leader Lao Tzu; “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Then we will have teachers with "drive".

RSA Animate version of Pink's TED talk:

Lao Tzu image: Google Graphics

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