The Secret to High Performance

The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive–our deep seated desire to control our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution–Daniel Pink

In my district, I have been part of a grand experiment. We have students who have failed traditional classes, and we are trying to help them recover their credit. This concept is not new. The experiment is students take classes through Blackboard on an individual basis, with teachers as mentors to help them.

Imagine their consternation: unlike every other summer, when they’d get their “packet of worksheets” to slap together and mail away, we met in the computer lab. As each student logged in to our virtual learning site, they had individual lessons to complete. Suddenly, they were being asked to actually practice and understand concepts, some of which did not match with what they’d learned the year before. Rather than letting them drift off into failure, I sat with a different student each day, modeling for them how to learn online. I had to do it–most of them were working on math courses that I knew nothing about. As we worked through practice problems and wrote down formulas (or googled the formulas,) I showed that room full of mostly boys that I cared about their success. And most of them finished.

Fast forward to spring. This school year, teachers were facilitating Blackboard courses for students. The teacher was at another site, so “all” the mentor teacher had to do was to motivate the students to finish. That fall, I taught next door, teaching a high school class for college credit. Now it was my turn with this new group of students.

Right away, I noticed a big difference between these students and my summer school kids. They wanted to sit away from me in the room, with their computer screens turned so I couldn’t see what they were doing. They saw me as the enemy, the one who they needed to game in order to do what they wanted. Only one student had completed her coursework for the fall; the rest were barely started. There was no Motivation 2.0–no stick or carrot big enough to make them care.

Being the person I am, I couldn’t sit behind my desk and grade papers, as I suspect the teacher before me had done. I sat down with each student and quickly determined that at least four of them were all in the same course. They were supposed to be reading The Alchemist, which is a pretty great book, but no one even had a copy. So we sat together, all five of us, and started reading the book out loud. Soon our group swelled to six, as another student with the same course joined us. It was still pulling teeth, and I’m sorry to say that although my six got through one semester’s worth of credit, another student dropped out, one went to juvenile detention, and a third had to cram several courses worth of credit that summer so he could graduate. No student could be said to have high performance standards. They finished because I cared, because I was unrelenting, not because of their own desires.

It’s now a little over one year later. Teachers this year have more control, as they grade their credit recovery kids’ content, but students still have no autonomy. The work feels meaningless to them. Just another thing to check off their list. So how can we make it doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves?

I’d love to see a new way to recover credit. Couldn’t we have a grand project, like a service to the community project, where they work towards their credits by doing for others? Couldn’t they, for example, create a community garden, researching and writing a proposal to the community for fundraising, using their math skills to compute how much soil, the depth of the seeds, and more? And we could can and donate the proceeds? What do you think? Could it work?

This post is in response to reading Daniel Pink’s Drive for my Twitter Bookclub, #TBookC. Join us as we discuss Part 2, The Three Elements, on Thursday, May 14 at 9 EST, or as we discuss Part 3: The Type I Toolkit on Thursday, May 21.

Pawns or partners?

Now that I’m (mostly) done with teaching Higher Ed, I should have a little more time to write. By next weekend, I’ll start expanding on these posts. 

As part of a Twitter book club (#TBookC, which meets 3 Thursdays of every month at 9 EST), I am currently reading Daniel Pink’s Drive. Part one discussed the idea of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, and which tasks suffer from extrinsic motivation.

Part 2, the section we’re discussing this week, moves into various theories of workplace management. Specifically, it looks at controlled vs autonomous work environments. It strikes me that the dichotomy of the two environments is very similar to the difference between teacher centered and student centered learning. This post will explore how both environments might work within a school.