“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 jobs. Worse 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!