You’re Driving Me Crazy!

What drives us? What gets us out of bed in the morning and into the classroom or the workplace? Is it the pursuit of a great salary or great grades? According to much of our current economic and educational systems, the answer is a resounding yes. But maybe that isn’t the best way to motivate people, to drive people forward. Maybe, as Jessie J would contend, it’s “not about the money, money, money”.

Jessie J just might be right about where our drive actually comes from.

Daniel Pink, author of the book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, would agree with the British pop star. In this work, he asserts that we work best when we are intrinsically motivated by the task, not when we are motivated by an extrinsic reward.

Pink identifies three elements that are essential to producing this intrinsic motivation in people, what he would call, being Type I, for intrinsic. I want to spend the rest of the time we have together delving into each of these elements and discussing how they might be applied in our science classrooms.

1. Autonomy

When we are told exactly what, how, and when to do something, it can be really frustrating and maybe even drive us crazy. We are not robots nor cogs in a machine. And neither are our students!

Students, as a whole, do not like strict deadlines or nitpicky teachers that really make a fuss if a student were to use a different color pen on an assignment than expected. While some of them have been conditioned to do well under this factory-like setting, a controlling environment does not foster growth or passion.

So, we need autonomy in the classroom, but that does not simply mean that the kids have free reign. Daniel Pink describes autonomy like this:

It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice- which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.

-Daniel Pink, Drive p. 88

Autonomy means trusting your students to make their own choices (in certain situations) about how they will engage with your class. This can be employed in a variety of ways:

  • Consulting with students about when they should have to turn in work
  • Emphasizing quality of work over punctuality of work
  • Implementing inquiry-based activities where students pick their own research questions
  • Letting students choose how they want to be assessed

Now some of you might be thinking: these are the words of a teacher whose students are going to take advantage of his leniency. I would be lying if I said that was not a possibility. But asking students to defend their choices and demonstrate how this would benefit their learning will allow you to see if the students are at a maturity level where this level of choice would be appropriate and foster their intrinsic motivation to learn.

If I haven’t convinced you about the importance of student autonomy in the classroom, check out this video made by teachers much smarter than me about its importance:

2. Mastery

Another element essential to the development of intrinsic motivation in students is mastery.

Ponder for a moment your favorite professional athlete, musician, or artist. Do you think they became great by focusing on temporary, external rewards? Sure, a championship ring or a Grammy might be in the upper echelon of extrinsic rewards, but these icons didn’t start throwing passes or strumming notes with the sole goal of eventually receiving this award. They were intrinsically motivated because they were pursuing mastery in their field.

How do you think five points of extra credit or a sticker compare to a Grammy? If even these prestigious awards don’t garner the motivation needed to win them, how do we expect the meager awards we give to students to do so?

Instead, we should focus on developing skills in students that they can use to pursue their own passions, being motivated by the hunt for mastery rather than the participation trophy of mediocrity.

When students, or anyone for that matter, are engaged in this mastery quest, Daniel Pink calls this flow.

In flow, people lived so deeply in the moment, and felt so utterly in control, that their sense of time, place, and even self melted away.

-Daniel Pink, Drive p. 113

What great changes could we see in schools if classroom walls started melting and students become transfixed by learning science and becoming passionate about it?

Practically, this can happen in many different ways:

  • We can assign projects that require each student to become an expert on a topic of their choice (there’s that autonomy again!)
  • We can connect lectures and labs to real-world applications that interest the students
  • We can foster a classroom environment that is not centered on grades or other extrinsic rewards

3. Purpose

The last essential element to developing intrinsic motivation is purpose. When students know why they are doing an activity, it is much easier for them to connect to it and care about it.

Students can find purpose in achieving goals they set for themselves. We can see this in our lives as well: how great does it feel to cross off the last item on a busy to-do list? This is not an extrinsic reward; it’s only a line of ink after all, but it still motivates us to achieve and succeed.

Yet students often have trouble writing goals for themselves. They tend to either be much too easy or far too esoteric and intangible. Use this link with your students to help them set achievable goals!

Students can also find purpose in some greater cause, a local or global problem that needs a solution. When they feel like they have a stake in helping to create a better future in their community, country, or world, then they will see the science they learn not as an island of useless facts but an array of tools at their disposal to create change they desire to see.

This starts by making students aware of scientific problems that affect them. After the initial connection is made, students will be much more likely to seek out scientific knowledge on the subject (which as their teacher, you’ll be more than happy to provide). With knowledge in hand, they can be equipped to create innovative solutions or to bring awareness to issues.

See this modeled below!

Let me end by driving this point home: our students will not be motivated by extrinsic factors that reward compliance and cutting corners. When their motivation is shifted internally and they are given the chance to be autonomous, seek mastery, and find purpose, our students will truly grow, and everyone will be better for it.

Internally motivated students are priceless, so forget about the Price Tag.

Catch you later!

Mr. Larson


  1. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment! When I think about flow, I am reminded about a time when I was writing a synthesis paper for junior year English. My topic was about the controversy surrounding zoos and whether they are beneficial for both animals and conservation. This was a topic that really interested me, and I was very passionate it about it. Therefore, I definitely “entered flow” when I was researching and typing it out!

  2. Hi Grace!
    You bring up a really good point! Grades can be a huge stressor and definitely do not lead to intrinsic motivation. I think that telling students that you care much more about the quality of an assignment, then whether it’s done on time, and then giving ample opportunity for feedback and editing or redoing an assignment can help students with this. Students do not have to worry that you will pick apart their assignment and fail them because they know you want them to learn and enjoy learning, so you will give them more tries to demonstrate that to you.

  3. Hi Ellie!
    I really like the idea of incorporating music into the classroom because that is a great point of connection for students to engage with the material in a way that is relevant to them. I have seen some YouTube videos where science teachers parody popular songs to explain science concepts (look up Evo Devo for a great example). I think these can be really helpful because they help concepts to stick in your brain, since songs are so catchy. As for ELLs, I think songs are also a great way for them to practice their English, and it will be something they will actually have fun doing!

  4. Hey Luke,
    I think your blog post was really engaging and fun! I think that visually and conceptually everything has a nice — flow — to it. Speaking of “flow”, it is something which I totally forgot to include in my post, and I think it lends a unique view to your own. Do you have any experiences where you think you’ve entered flow?

  5. Hi Luke!
    First of all, LOVING the Jessie J reference- it made me laugh, especially when you were able to circle back to it at the end of your post. Under your mastery section, I liked how you mentioned that in order to encourage mastery, we can create a classroom culture that is not focused on grades. Do you have any ideas for how you could practically do that? In high school I was very much motivated by grades, and it took a toll on me, but I am not sure how to get around that with my future students, especially when I still have to give them a grade at the end of the day.

  6. Hi Luke!

    Love how you connected Drive to a pop song, this is a great way to get students connected to and invested in what they’re learning. Do you have any ideas about how you incorporate music into science lessons? It could also be a great way to help ELL like we talked about in TESOL. Thoughts?

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