August 2009 Archives

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

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Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation | Video on (18:36)

Pink presents some insights into the benefits of intrinsic motivation as opposed to external motivation, such as rewards, bonuses, and other incentives. Apparently, research at least 40 years old has demonstrated conclusively that people working on tasks with any form of creativity or cognitive challenge perform less well if they are working for some kind of incentive. The lesson he presents for businesses is to rethink management styles, to provide more autonomy for  employees so that everyone will do better and be happier. One catch is that employees have to be compensated adequately in the first place, which is problematic. But if that can be done, more flexible management models seem to produce much better results in the corporate world.

What about in academe? As Charley Sullivan (who directed me to the talk in the first place) points out, the professoriate basically works under this model already. My concern is for students, for whom high-stakes testing is an issue. What I wrote to him:

High-stakes tests of any kind in an academic/intellectual setting would seem to deter the kinds of results those tests seek to measure. Traditionally, then, successful students are the ones for whom either the tests are suitably easy (thereby becoming rote tasks for which risk/reward incentives are non-factors) or who are able to overcome the cognitive block in some way: e.g., by shutting down their emotions, by cheating, by using psychoactive drugs, by ignoring the outcome (perhaps the best approach but one that requires more enlightenment than most humans have).
I also have concerns for the non-tenured workers in academe, which includes everyone but professors: adjuncts, graduate students, staff, administrators, and K-12 instructors. The old management models, which still govern a lot of schools, are geared toward compliance, according to Pink. But that's hardly the most desirable outcome for anyone engaged in knowledge work and its support. Compliance gets you only so far toward a community of learners. Pink's three keywords of autonomy, mastery, and purpose might be a useful beginning framework for understanding how to construct academic institutions that support all their participants and stakeholders more effectively.

This is a nifty little web toy that generates mind-map-looking graphics of words and associated words. The graphic uses color, line patterns, and shapes to denote such attributes as part of speech, relationship (e.g., a word and a subset word, opposites, an example of a larger category), and derivation visually. It's a bit confusing, but the key stays visible at the side at all times, so it's easy enough to find what a marking means. It might make using a thesaurus practicable, as the applet is quite fast.

(H/T to Jan Fernheimer for the re-tweet.)

Addition to the Lexicon

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A quick tale from the road: I recently travelled to visit family in Milwaukee, and on the return trip I was delighted to see the following sign hanging from the ceiling just past the TSA security area at the airport:

Recombobulation Area

It was set up nicely, with plenty of room for the re-donning of shoes, the repacking of bags, etc. But the sign was the real inspiration.

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