First things first, let’s hype everyone up, because I just know you’re reading this with bleary eyes at 3AM, and that’s okay. No judgement here.

“If we start treating people like people, and not assuming that they’re horses… slower, smaller, better-smelling horses… I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off, but… also make our world just a little bit better.”

-Dan Pink: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

When Dan Pink suggested that humans are not infinitely pliable creatures who can be easily controlled by their environments and the (market) forces surrounding them, I immediately began to reflect back on my brief liaison with psychology, and the Behaviorist school of thought more specifically. I went back to one of its most prominent detractors, Steven Pinker, who criticizes the Behaviorist approach to the human psyche in his book, The Blank Slate. In this model (or at least, his version of it which isn’t entirely accurate), we are primarily driven by external stimuli, the consequences of our actions, the things we have been conditioned (dare I say, programmed) to do, a model with which I happen to agree… to an extent. There is merit to our friend Steven’s critique of Behaviorism, and given my own experiences with genetic traits and their influence on human behavior, I happen to subscribe to the current model, which incorporates elements of Behaviorism (B.F. Skinner–the guy with the rats and the levers–being one of its most notable cheerleaders) and evolutionary psychology (our friend Pinker), among other things (ask the psychologists–they know way more than I do: also, Psychologists, please tell me if I totally butchered the whole Behaviorist thing!).

What does any of this have to do with learning? Well, by the psychological definition, learning is what allows us to adapt to new conditions, like, say a stressful university course that comes with specific expectations. In its most simplistic form, and sadly, in the form we most often see in too many schools, learning occurs when students associate conformity to testing standards, rubrics, syllabi, and rankings with positive reinforcements like gold stars, passing grades, higher class rankings, university admissions, and “better-performing” schools. This form of learning is not exactly the most inspiring or the most motivating, but it gets results–at least, the sort that would interest test-prep companies, school districts, and other adults who like quantifiable results. It does not benefit the students, however, because, according to the deeply depressing and realistic film, Declining by Degrees, many of them are simply going through the motions, seeing school as yet another series of hoops to jump through until they meet their next goal.

This is where Dan Pink’s motivational speech (about motivation… har-har) comes in. These uninspired, unmotivated, disenchanted students leave college and enter the workforce. Up to this point, they’ve spent their lives being treated like “slower, smaller, better-smelling horses” or worse, depending on the school district. Uninspired, unmotivated, disenchanted students make for disengaged workers who are less likely to come up with innovative ideas, be more productive, or even like their jobsWorse still, those who aren’t fortunate enough to travel that path can end up in prison, which results in even more lost productivity and innovation since entire cohorts of young minds are wasted behind bars. I completely agree with Dan Pink: we need to endow our workers and students with a greater sense of purpose, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. He’s already mentioned the profit-driven model of large corporations and the problems that can cause with employee disengagement, but I think we should investigate the motivations of school districts and everyone else who is responsible for our current educational system which, if we look back, has mostly been corporations (remember that passing comment Dr. Nelson made about the role of the Ford Motor Company in the creation of school assessment? Yup. That B-minus was kinda sorta their fault).


Congratulations on surviving the first sixteen years of school! Now let’s see if we can make it better for those coming after us!

12 thoughts on “Week 4: “What are you doing with that carrot, Professor?”

  1. Hi Jasmine,

    Thanks for your post!

    I think you make a lot of great points, but I’m going to stick to the psychological concepts you brought up.

    The primary distinction of the behavioral approach is that its focus is solely on the observed behavior. Some behaviorists will acknowledge that we have emotion and cognition, but what they’re concerned with is the stimulus (antecedent), the resulting behavior, and finally the outcome (consequence) that determines learning. Considering this in the education context: the student is presented with information (antecedent), they study (behavior) and do well on the test (consequence). Their success on the test will reinforce their studying behavior and they will continue it.

    A theory that I like and use a lot is social learning theory, which also attempts to explain behavior but actively considers internal processes. Social learning considers that we are social creatures who do not only learn from consequences of our own actions but can also learn through observing others’ (modeled) behavior or consequences from other individuals and can be influenced by social norms. For example, I am not prone to studying on my own, so my friends encourage me to study with them. Not only am I being influenced by their suggestions, but when I go to a study group where other students are working quietly, I will likely adapt the same behaviors because I don’t want to disrupt the norms of the group and I don’t want to have negative social repercussions for being loud or distracting.

    1. I loved what you had to say about social learning theory. That was my exact experience in high school–my friends were very studious, so there was very strong social pressure to study during my free time, and while I am very grateful for the increase in my GPA, I was also wary of being excluded if I chose not to participate, so you have a real-life example!

  2. Thank you for the captivating post. Much of what you said (horses, disengaged workers, etc.) actually reminded me of the movie “Sorry to Bother You.” I don’t want to spoil anything, because it gets pretty crazy. You should check it out.

  3. We can talk about the substance of this wonderful post in class, but let me just salute the masterful use of the hyperlink with explanatory hover tags in that first sentence. Brave Heart, Khaleesi (how long do we have to wait for her to come back anyway?), Wakanda, Spartans…and the Haka tribute!?!?! Wow. Just. Wow.

    1. I did not realize the first paragraph contained *any* hyperlinks. Thank you, Dr. Nelson! It’s 7:55 AM, so perhaps I am already awake?

  4. Your blog post was such a fun read. You managed to take these concepts of motivation and learning and make them very captivating for the reader. So thank you. You mentioned a quote from Dan Pink that really resonates with me, “we need to endow our workers and students with a greater sense of purpose”. But how do we do this? Does this come from the teacher? Or is it something we have to find ourselves? Maybe it’s creating more real life applications to our learning to see the impact of our work. Or maybe if we weren’t so motivated by grades, more intrinsic self-fulfilling motivations would have room to thrive and we would find our purpose.

    1. Those are all very good questions, and honestly, I’m not sure of the answer. However, I do believe that the responsibility to find one’s purpose lies with more than just the student or the teacher.

  5. I really liked your writing style and i apspreciate your call to action. I agree that we do need to evaluate how we go about educating students and trying to avoid the carrot stick model. I very strongly remember being so focused on the carrot in 3rd grade to keep my behavior in check that I really didn’t lay attention to much else because i wanted brownies at the end of the 6 weeks. I do think we need to be careful about entirely eliminating evaluation as a place that has traditionally had it. i know that European countries are ideal and don’t need it but they traditionally have much less diverse student bodies and i worry that students where English isn’t their first language or the implicit bias of some teachers may mean that there is still inequality in education. I think perhaps the stakes we’ve placed on the school for the teachers performance is the problem. Teaching is iterative and you want teachers to be able to improve with out fear of losing their job which is why i think maybe a standardized with no goal other than feedback may be a better model.

    1. I completely agree with your assessment of the problems in US schools. Having seen them firsthand, I’m at a loss for how things can be improved overall, but job security is a huge concern for teachers and administrators, and in places with underserved populations, implicit bias is a looming problem that permeates every aspect of education, from the classroom to the meeting room of the school board. Have you watched “Waiting for Superman”? It’s an excellent film about what’s going on in education. I recommend it.

Leave a Reply