Drive: Get Behind the Wheel

You’ve been lied to.

Don’t be too upset though, most of us have.

Remember in that psych class you took there was that whole unit about classical conditioning? All those scientists and researches who spouted the wonders of extrinsic motivation? They were wrong (mostly).

The old theory was that was the best way to improve behavior and increase efficiency was to use extrinsic motivation. The idea behind it is pretty simple. If you see a behavior you like, you reward it (carrot). If you see a behavior you don’t like, you punish it (stick). Makes sense right?

 There is a problem with that idea though. It doesn’t work.

Extrinsic motivation doesn’t produce good creative work

When you reward students for their work, they not only lose some of their own (intrinsic) motivation, they also struggle to produce high-quality thoughtful work. Students who would normally be totally content to work hard and learn on their own will respond to a sticker or a grade with less desire to achieve and work hard, not by producing more, better work.

Beth Hennesey lays out in this video just how devastating extrinsic motivation and the typical classroom can be for creativity. She advocates for giving students control over their learning and tapping into their natural intrinsic motivation. I think she’s onto something really special


“Well if we can’t use that carrot, how do we motivate the students?”

The answer is both incredibly simple, and a little complicated. It comes in three parts.

1. Autonomy

Kids need to feel like they have some control. They need to feel like they have some say in what they are doing and how they are doing it. They need to feel like they aren’t just cogs in a machine. Let them push a little. Feed their intrinsic motivation by letting them do work that excites them. Take an opportunity to go to the margins #throwback

2. Mastery

Do you ever get that feeling of satisfied joy when you are working really hard and cranking out excellent work? It’s pretty fantastic when you feel like you are really good at something, when you have mastery over a task or a skill. Kids work like that too. Everyone wants to be good and get better. The urge to improve and gain mastery of something is an excellent intrinsic motivator.

3. Purpose

It has to mean something. Students can tell when a task doesn’t have a purpose. They can sniff out that worksheet and figure out its a time waster. Let them know WHY they are doing what they are doing. When kids see the bigger picture behind a task and have a sense of purpose, it is much easier for them to commit to the work

We all have some intrinsic motivation. It’s in there, even if it’s been beaten down for a while. Feed it. Let it grow. Cultivate that internal urge in your students and create an environment that thrives without the use of stickers or candy. Use that drive that’s built into your students and let it free




  1. The Einstein quote makes a lot of sense. This kind of mentality is much too common today, and I think living by these words can bring about a happier, and probably more productive, individual. Your post also encapsulates the most important points of Drive, which are principles we should all strive to understand and apply to our lives.

  2. Peter, first of all I love the quote you used in your tweet. Also all of the pictures you used really caught my attention and helped explained your post really well. I really agree with your definitions of Autonomy, Mastery, and purpose. The video you used gave really good explanation and ways you can incorporate intrinsic motivation in your classroom which is really important. Do you think that you should have extrinsic motivation in the classroom too or just intrinsic motivation and why?

    • Bailey, Thank you! I think there are certainly some reasons to use extrinsic motivation in the classroom. As Daniel Pink describes in his book, extrinsic motivation works for simple rudimentary tasks. I think teachers should always work to engage their students in meaningful thought-provoking ways, but inevitably there will be some simpler tasks in the classroom that might be helped by extrinsic motivation.

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