Monday, May 17, 2010

Standardization vs Autonomy

‘How motivated are you?” I hear this question all the time, and it makes me squirm. This question implies that motivation comes in only one flavor—and people either have lots or little of it. This is but one example of the massive disconnect between what education does and what science knows.

There are actually two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. But that isn’t even the catch; the catch is that these two kinds of motivation are inversely related – meaning that if one grows the other is likely to diminish.

Alfie Kohn unloads a mountain of research in his book Punished by Rewards illustrating that when people are told “do this and you’ll get that”, they tend to lose interest in the ‘this’ and gravitate towards the ‘that’. Kohn uses an old joke to capture this phenomenon:
"It is the story of an elderly man who endured the insults of a crowd of ten-year-olds each day as they passed his house on their way home from school. One afternoon, after listening to another round of jeers about how stupid and ugly and bald he was, the man came up with a plan. He met the children on his lawn the following Monday and announced that anyone who came back the next day and yelled rude comments about him would recieve a dollar. Amazed and excited, they showed up even earlier on Tuesday, hollering epithets for all they were worth. True to his word, the old man ambled out and paid everyone. "Do the same tomorrow," he told them, "and you'll get twenty-five cents for your trouble." The kids thought that was still pretty good and turned out again on Wednesday to taunt him. At the first catcall, he walked over with a roll of quarters and again paid off his hecklers. "From now on, he announced, "I can give you only a penny for doing this." The kids looked at each other in disbelief. "A penny?" they repeated scornfully. "Forget it!" And they never came back again."
The old man was able to sap the boys' intrinsic motivation for heckling with an extrinsic bribe. What's sad is that this is exactly what good-intentioned teachers do everyday when they use grades to artificially entice students to learn. Whether we know it or not - we are sapping students of their love for learning.
We are in an assessment paradox. Teachers are being encouraged to teach using differentiated instruction; however, at the same time, they are being torn in the opposite direction with top-down, authoritarian demands for high-stakes standardized test scores.

The true paradox lies in the reality that standardization and differentiation strive to achieve two very different goals. Standardization encourages management while differentations respects autonomy.

If we have to manage standardization, let's take a closer look at the term management. Dan Pink explains the folly of management in his book Drive:

We forget sometimes that "management" does not emanate from nature. It's not like a tree or a river. It's like a television or a bicycle. It's something that humans invented. As the strategy guru Gary Hamel has observed, management is a technology. And like Motivation 2.0, it's a technology that has grown creaky. While some companies have oiled the gears a bit, and plenty more have paid lip service to the same, at its core management hasn't changed much in a hundred years. Its central ethic remains control; it's chief tools remain extrinsic motivators. That leaves it largely out of sync with the non-routine, right-brain abilities on which many of the world's economics now depend. But could its most glairing weakness run deeper? Is management, as it's currently constituted, out of sync with human nature itself?

For everything Dan Pink suggests is wrong with managment, I suggest the same could be said of standardization. In fact, I would suggest you try and read the above excerpt again, but this time substitute the word management with standardization.
So if we are not wise to pursue managing standardization, what is the alternative? Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the two architects of The Self-Determination Theory (SDT), have accumulated decades of research to support the idea that autonomy is at the heart of being human. Ryan and Deci explain:
Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self.

Because standardization is not natural, it has to be maintained by a managed set of extrinsic manipulators that can only ever be experienced as controlling. Just as management, standardization is out of sync with human nature. A far better model of learning would see us subscribe to both differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment.

All this means that we need to make a choice; we can no longer afford to ignore what science knows. We have got to decide which kind of motivation aligns itself with our ultimate objectives.

It’s time we purged our teaching tool kits of our carrots and sticks and created an extrinsic-free, autonomous learning environment that will provide our children an opportunity to authentically grow their natural, intrinsic love for learning.

The day we can authentically say that our children experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information will be a day that we can say we actually achieved something.

I wrote this for Synthesizing Education.


  1. I wish you were my kid's teacher! Spot on.

  2. Thank you for the kind words.

    Send this blogpost to your kid's teacher. :)

  3. I'll second that Sarah.

    Love Kohn's wise man's story at the start... looks like I've got some catching up to do on your blog. Can't wait :-)

  4. Welcome to the party, Paul. Let me know if you need anything.


  5. I totally agree. Have also read Alfie's Punishment by Reward and cringe when I see sticker sheets used in classes. Reward stickers for learning. More teachers need to read his book and your adept summary here. I like your idea of differentiated assessment to match differentiated instruction.
    Thanks for the post. I'll certainly forward it on to others.


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