Autonomy and Intrinsic Motivation: An Academic Application of Drive

Daniel Pink, author of New York Times best selling book, Drive, details the science behind motivation and individuals personalities in work based settings. But how can we apply these ideologies with teaching? Why is it relevant in the first place? I believe that Pink’s ideas could take the steps to revolutionizing education by appealing to student’s motivation and engagement. 


Schools are structured, students are expected to be in their seats at the ring of a bell and complete routine assignments because they are obligated to. Student choice is limited here, they complete tasks because they are told to – not necessarily because they always want to. Autonomy, or self governing, is obsolete. Though, it does not have to be like this. Drive describes a successful workplace practice called Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE. In this practice, employees were only expected to get their work done. They were not given any parameters of how or when to complete their task, they simply had to get it done eventually. While this may sound like opening Pandora’s box, it was found that productivity actually increased by creating an environment where employees could focus on their work itself rather than the rules and regulations that constricted them. There is a similar practice in education, Results Only Learning Environment, or ROLE. In application, it is possible by giving students freedom to do things as they want, they will be more productive and creative in their work. This could be a movement towards breaking the constraints schools impose on students, and reshaping how students learn. 

The following are examples of applying ROLE; 

  • Project based learning
  • Self paced learning 
  • Having students hold themselves accountable by having them write reflections
  • Setting goals, but not rules in completing assignment
  • Fostering Intrinsic motivation in the classroom

External Motivation 

The current academic system is deeply rooted in getting students motivated to complete assignments by offering external rewards. For example, grades, points, and treats. But is this really effective? Pink explains that external motivation can only go so far. Yes, offering students a reward may get them to complete the assignment, but they will not get anything meaningful out of the content they are supposed to be learning. External motivations play into the banking system we have created, a cycle of memorization, regurgitation, and ultimately forgetting after receiving a reward, like the grade on an exam. This is not to say external rewards should be forgotten, but things such as praise and encouragement can go so much farther than material items. 

Internal Motivation

Internal motivation is a less common form of motivation in the school environment. This type of motivation requires a person to do a task because they want to or they have personal goals to accomplish by doing the task. School, being so deeply rooted in providing students with some external reward for performance, makes it difficult to foster intrinsic motivation. However, styles such as inquiry, which learning relies on students completing projects related to their own interests and the content, can help instill intrinsic motivation in students.

Here are some techniques that can motivate students intrinsically; 

  • Allow students to pick a research topic that they’re interested in. They will be intrinsically motivated because they want to learn about their chosen subject. 
  • Relate lesson content to real life. If students understand why they are learning something and it’s important, they may feel more intrinsically motivated to apply themselves. 
  • Create curiosity! Making compelling lesson plans that are directed in making students question things will intrinsically motivate students to understand the topic because they want to, out of pure curiosity. 

How will I apply Autonomy and Foster Intrinsic Motivation in my classroom?

I believe that inquiry based learning is a perfect platform for motivating students and giving them autonomy. Inquiry allows students to be curious, they are allowed to investigate their interests in a way that is meaningful to learning science. Scientists have the autonomy to pose questions, not be given them on a worksheet. Science is done through the intrinsic motivation of understanding the world, with the autonomy to create experiments created by oneself. By allowing students to have class discussions within the margins and giving student-led projects, I believe I will successfully apply these concepts to my classroom. 

Additional resources on ROWE/ROLE –

Could a Results Only Work Environment be Right for Your Students? –

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  1. Hello! I really enjoyed reading your blog post! It was really well written. I really liked your autonomous graphic. It ties into your blog post very nicely. I also liked how you used examples of the ROWE. I would agree with the techniques you used for getting students intrinsically motivated in your classroom, can you think of any more techniques?

  2. Hi Jack, this is an amazing post, it really brought together a lot of the ideas discussed in the book, and in class! It also seems we have many of the same ideas of how to increase intrinsic motivation in the classroom, and how it’ll be applied to our classroom. My question for you is what would you expect the change to look like for increasing intrinsic motivation in your classroom, would it be slow or fast?

  3. Hey Jack, I enjoyed reading your post about motivation and autonomy. I liked the thoughts on autonomy and ROLE. Personal motivation is essential and should be encouraged within the classroom. How should a teacher balance applying the aspects of a ROLE-orientated classroom when they have a set number of topics that need to be taught by the end of the class? I think it will be hard to balance optimal student learning through self-guided study if students come from classrooms built around extrinsic instruction, but I wanted to know your thoughts.

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