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“Carrots and Sticks are So Last Century”: A Conversation with Author Dan Pink

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Dan Pink has written several bestselling books on the future of work. His most recent book, Drive, is already lighting up the blogosphere a scant week after its release. Drive explores what motivates us to do our best work. These days, carrots and sticks will do more harm than good, Pink argues. The time has come to tap "the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world."

Pink has earned his chops as a business writer. He has become a regular in the pages of magazines like Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and Wired. But his work is at least as relevant to schools as it is to business.

Pink recently spoke with us about his book and its implications for school reform.

Public School Insights: Given that this is the age of Twitter, can you summarize your book in 140 characters or less?

Pink: I can summarize the book in 140 characters, although it is kind of hard to measure characters in audio….

The 140 character summary of this book Drive goes like this: Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st-century work we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Public School Insights: Thank you, that does the trick. Let's dig into that and create a few more characters. [Along with] this notion of autonomy, mastery and purpose, you give a bit of a history. We have moved from motivation 1.0 to motivation 2.0, and then to motivation 3.0. What are these stages and why are they important?

Pink: Part of this book has a metaphor at the center of it. It is the metaphor of the computer operating system. All of us use computers. We use a whole variety of programs that we touch and manipulate and that we see every day. A web browser or word processor or spreadsheet. Beneath that software is another layer of software, called the operating system. It has all the instructions, protocols, assumptions and suppositions that allow everything on the top to operate.

I think societies, businesses and cultures have operating systems too. Our first operating system--and when I say first I mean way, way, way, way back a long time ago, 50,000 years ago--was an operating system built largely on our biological drive. We as human beings are biological creatures. We eat to sate our hunger. We drink to slake our thirst. We have that biological drive, and when human civilization was about survival, that was basically what the operating system was.

That operating system--we can call it motivation 1.0--doesn't work that well when societies become more complex. If you start wanting to trade with your neighbors, if you figure out a way to escape the saber tooth tiger more enduringly, if you want to raise your income and your family’s standard of living through trading with partners, then you need another operating system. In fact in some ways you have to restrain that biological drive, so that I don't steal your dinner and you don't steal my wife.

So we got an upgrade to motivation 2.0, which was built entirely around rewards and punishments--around carrots and sticks. As I researched this, it came to me that this operating system was one of the most ingenious things humans have ever invented. It was an incredible, glorious achievement. It is why we are here today, in many ways. It fueled the Industrial Revolution, it fueled centuries of commercial progress.

But the argument of this book is that the reward and punishment operating system is getting buggy. It's crashing. And the reason that it's crashing is that the work that people are doing today—the businesses that people are running today—are different in kind and to some extent in degree than the programs that we used to be running. As a result, we need an upgraded operating system to deal with that level of complexity.

This new operating system doesn't say that we don't have the reward and punishment drive, nor does it say that we don't have the biological drive. But it says that we have a third drive, which is the drive to direct our own lives. The drive to get better at stuff that matters. The drive to connect to a cause larger than ourselves.

One of the problems we've been having is that the reward and punishment drive--and this is really the other heart of the book…There is 40 years of science that says that for complex, conceptual, creative tasks—the sort of things that most white-collar workers are doing now that the more simple routine work can be offshore or automated—carrot and stick motivators don't work. Or I should say they rarely work, and they often do harm. And this is not even close in the field of science.

So what you have now is this gap between what science knows about motivation—which is that carrot and stick motivators work in a narrow band of circumstances and that if you really want high-performance on more creative conceptual tasks you have to have a different operating system built more on our internal drive do interesting things and to do something that matters—[and the motivators that exist today.] So we need this upgrade to motivation 3.0, which as you said is built around the elements of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Public School Insights: The nation right now is stuck at motivation 2.0. Where do you think the schools are?

Pink: I think the schools are still at 2.0. They maybe haven't gotten all the updates.

I think that some businesses are actually at 2.1 right now. They have experimented with flexible schedules, giving people a little bit more autonomy, socially responsible businesses—at least we mouth that word. That is one of those small, monthly updates that you download periodically. So maybe 2.1.

I think schools are 2.0. I think they are in many ways--not all of them, but many of them--the purest form of 2.0. Although I've been in a lot of schools and certainly the biological drive is present in every school that I've ever seen.

Public School Insights: In education right now, there's a lot of talk about reform, change and schools for the 21st century. But interestingly, a lot of that talk seems to revolve around motivation 2.0. For example, performance pay for teachers, performance pay for students. Do you think this is the wrong kind of talk?

Pink: I think that in general, if you look at the science of this, it is not only a misplaced kind of talk but a misplaced form of action.

Obviously, as you know, this is a very controversial issue, and my take on all this is very much an empirical take. If something works, I'm up for doing it. But let’s unpack your wise question here for a moment. Let's talk about giving kids iPods or McDonald's coupons for good test scores and that sort of thing. This one, I think [the science shows] is not even close [to being the right kind of talk]. And educators, I think, understand this. In fact, educators understand the differences between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation better than almost anyone in American society. At least if you mention the phrase “intrinsic motivation” to educators, they know what you were talking about. There are many people—a shocking number of people—in business who just simply don't know what that means.

So let's talk about paying kids for grades and whatnot. If you look at the science of [motivation]—and there has been a lot of research on this...Let's say you say to a kid that if you get a good grade on a test, we are going to give you some cash or a coupon or something like that. The odds are pretty good that will actually get the kid to get the grade on the test. That is, it will work in the short term. However, it can have devastating effects in the long term. It basically says to that kid that the only reason to study for a test, the only reason to do these sorts of things is in order to get this reward. You are not deciding to do this on your own. There is no higher value to it. It is simply for the reward.

Everybody thinks that intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation can more or less coexist, that they can layer on top of each other. But the science shows that just isn't right. [I will try to summarize] one of the most famous studies in all of social psychology very, very quickly. It is a study from, I think, 1972. What [the researchers] did was go to this preschool. They looked at the kids who, in their free time at the preschool, were drawing. They took these kids who were interested in drawing and they did an experiment. They divided them into groups. They took one group, sat them in a room and said, “If you draw something right now I am going to give you this fancy certificate.” To the second group, they said, “Draw if you want to,” and at the end if the kid drew they gave them the fancy certificate. Then to the third group, they said “Draw if you want to.” There was no reward before and no reward after.

Two weeks later, [the researchers] go back to the school and watch what these kids are doing during free play time. The kids who were neither promised a reward nor given one afterwards were still drawing. The kids who were not promised a reward, but got one after the fact were still drawing, which is very interesting and I want to get back to that in a moment. But kids who were promised a reward for drawing were no longer interested in drawing in their free time. That contingent reward had extinguished their interest in drawing. So that reward got them to draw in the short run—absolutely, it worked. Quote unquote “worked.” But it had a devastating effect in the long run. And that is what concerns me.

What was very interesting is that it wasn't the reward itself that extinguished the interest. Remember, the kids in this experiment who were not promised a reward but got one afterwards were still interested in drawing. That is a really, really important insight from the science. What the science shows is that these what I call “if then” rewards—“if you do this, then you get that”—could have a devastating effect on creativity because they narrow our vision, rather than broaden it, which you need for creative thinking. They can inspire people to think short term rather than long term. They can cause some people to act unethically and take shortcuts. And they can extinguish intrinsic motivation.

However, there are rewards that I put into a category called “now, that” rewards—“Now that you've done dadada, here is some kind of reward.” Those are much less toxic. So it is not that we should banish all kinds of external rewards from schools. But the science shows that the more we offer them as contingencies, the more likely we are to do some serious long-term damage.

Let's say that it is summer. You really want your kids to read. You can pay them a dollar a book to read, and chances are that over that summer, or over the first couple of months of that summer, they are going to read books. But you have to be prepared to pay them a buck every book forever, essentially, because once the payment is removed the science shows that they will probably stop reading. They’ve said “Hey, reading is something you do in order to get that external reward.” And you essentially, for the short term gain of getting a kid to read some books now, have extinguished that kid’s interest in reading in the long term.

Public School Insights: Let’s move away from carrots and onto sticks. You talk about the notion of autonomy, and you provide some very rich examples in the book about companies—the famous 3M example, but more recent examples as well— that have understood the value of giving their people autonomy. If we bring this autonomy into the school environment, both for staff and for students, does that do harm to the notion of accountability? How do we know that people will actually work?

Pink: I think that is a great question, and I do not think there is a perfect way to ensure accountability. You know, we tend to think that if people have autonomy, they will use it to escape accountability. But in some ways, if you believe that, you are operating on the wrong theory of what human beings are. I think some people will do that, absolutely. But I think that many people, if they're in a context of autonomy, will actually do better work and actually want to be held accountable.

This is a good point for teachers. Let's talk about performance pay for teachers, which is pitched as an accountability measure. Truth be told, until I looked at the research—and there is really 40 years of research on the science of motivation—I actually thought performance pay for teachers was a good idea. I was for it. Then I read the science, and I said, “No, I am not for this.” Because what is pretty clear is that it is a very problematic thing to get right.

If you talk to teachers about this, and I interviewed some teachers recently about it, one concern is that it's all about favoritism. It becomes essentially this political act. The principal or the head of the building awards these bonuses to people he or she likes.

One way to get around that is to tie [pay] to standardized test scores. Now that is a disaster waiting to happen. The science is pretty clear that if you put a big payoff on results on these standardized tests, then people are going to focus like a laser beam on getting high scores on those tests, in the absence of doing anything else.

You could say, “Let’s have a variety of metrics. What your peers think of you, what kids think of you, standardized test scores, dadadadada.” And then what you have done is basically made administrators do this elaborate system of metrics to evaluate their teachers. I just can't figure out a good way to do [pay for performance].

The way that money is most effective as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they are not focused on money, but they are focused on doing their job well. My experience has been that 85% of teachers out there just want teach and do right by kids. If you raise their base salaries and give them some autonomy, they’ll do that. If you also give either building principals or superintendents the ability to get rid of—and I am just estimating here—the 10% or 15% of teachers, like the 10% or 15% of any profession, who are duds, I think that is a simpler solution. It is not perfect, but it has far less collateral damage than tying [pay] to standardized test scores or doing these elaborate performance measurements.

Public School Insights: Let's get back to students. There is an interesting parallel conversation that is going on right now in the policy realm, as I'm sure you know. We have got charter schools, the so-called “no excuses schools” like, for example, KIPP schools. They create very structured environments. They offer rewards and sanctions, mostly to poor urban kids who attend those schools. They do struggle with attrition, often from students who do not want to abide by their contract. But the students who stay seem to do really very well, and in fact much better than most of their peers. So do you think that KIPP is mired in motivation 2.0, or is there something else possibly going on here?

Pink: As I said, I am an empiricist, and what KIPP is doing is working, at least for now. I think we need to think about why it is working.

Some of the kids who are at schools like that are starting from pretty dire circumstances. If you are in a world, if you are living in a household or living in a neighborhood where you do not have basic skills and where even the concept of being intrinsically motivated to learn and to study is essentially absent…I think that it is very difficult, not impossible but very difficult, to take a kid like that and put that kid into a world of unabashed autonomy. I think that kid needs some scaffolding to get there.

I think that in many ways KIPP could offer that scaffolding. Kids who have been left so far behind absolutely need a little bit of structure, at the beginning. They need this kind of rigidity, at the beginning. So [schools can] say “Here is how you learn.” But I think if you keep the kid in that environment for a very, very, very long time, that kid maybe will escape poverty, which is obviously a valuable thing, but that kid isn't fully prepared for the world.

There are alternative models out there. I am involved with Big Picture Schools. I am on the board of Big Picture [Learning], which runs a number of public schools around the United States. They have equally good results with a very different, very autonomous approach.

So I'm for whatever works, but I think we look at what KIPP is doing as a way essentially to rescue people and provide scaffolding to even higher levels of performance.

Public School Insights: [The autonomy is] interesting [in] the other example you provided--Dennis Littkey, the Big Picture Schools. And you suggested in an appendix to the book that parents take a page from something that is perhaps even less structured and more autonomous than that. And that is the un-schooling movement. The reason that I am interested in that is that as an organization we have been supporting the common academic standards movement, which holds that there are many things that every student really needs to know and be able to do to make the best use of their autonomy later in life. So I am wondering, are these compatible ideas in your opinion?

Pink: I think that they are. Common academic standards are the outcome, right? The path that one takes there shouldn't necessarily matter, right? There are probably multiple paths that people can take there. And if you look at the performance of unschoolers, they are fine on the common academic stuff. They know a lot of stuff, and they have very high level skills.

But I will tell you a big part of that. Forget about motivation 1.0 or 2.0. Not all of [the performance of unschoolers] but part of that is socioeconomic status. That is, if you have the socioeconomic status where one parent can devote his or her time to a kid's education essentially full-time, you are going to get pretty good outcomes, if the parent is committed. But that requires in many cases—not all, because actually the socioeconomics of unschoolers does not skew as high as one would think—but it does require [higher socioeconomic status]. If two parents are working minimum-wage jobs, you are not going to be able to unschool your kids.

Public School Insights: A very broad question to end with: Are there any questions I should have asked you, but that I did not?

Pink: It is almost a question I would want to ask you, rather than you me. I would be curious as to how you think different parts of the education system might respond to this set of ideas. It is a book, just to make it clear to your listeners, mostly for a business audience. It is not a book about education. But it’s not like people in education are not allowed to read outside of their discipline. And I am curious from your perspective as to how you think different parts of the education system might respond to this argument. Because my hunch is that there is not going to be a common education view of this. Where someone stands will depend on where they sit within the system. What do you think?

Public School Insights: I think that is a fair bet. It is interesting that right now in discussions of education reforms, we are hearing about business all the time. We are hearing about the lessons of business, but the lessons of business we are hearing about are largely motivation 2.0 lessons. We are saying that business has become extremely profitable because they focus entirely on outcomes, which isn't quite true but that is the argument. Or that they reward people for their performance. We hear a lot about that.

Pink: Right. No one ever says, “Why not just import the pay-for-performance schemes of Wall Street into our schools?” Yes, business did that, but in many cases they didn't work out very well.

Public School Insights: I don’t know, I know a lot of people who are still waiting for their bonuses….

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