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The Best Motivation Comes from Within

Teaching students autonomy, mastery and purpose

cover of Drive, the book by D. PinkDearborn Academy has undergone a substantial transformation in the past two years. One of these changes has led to a new approach to helping students face frustrations, whether academic or social-emotional, and to internalize strategies that work.


Much has been written about how parents can best motivate their children, how teachers can best motivate students, and how businesses can best motivate workers. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink concisely describes three types of motivation.


Motivation 1.0 refers to how people are motivated by their basic biological needs, or the need to survive. He talks about how there is actually sometimes a need to restrain this type of motivation.


Motivation 2.0 is all about rewards and punishments. This works for some, mostly routine, tasks while being counterproductive in addressing many other tasks.


Motivation 3.0 references our intrinsic drive to learn, create, and make the world better. One needs this type of motivation in order to solve novel or complex problems.


Pink posits that Motivation 3.0 is the most adaptive, effective form of motivation, one that leads to learning, growth, and effective problem-solving. Why? Because it best fosters what he calls the pillars of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These traits, of course, are exactly what we want to foster in our students.


Motivating Our Students to Motivate Themselves

Like most other schools and programs of its kind, for many years Dearborn used a level system with the goal of teaching students skills to cope with stress and build social skills in order to be present for learning.


If staff observed behaviors that demonstrated students’ skills to stay focused on schoolwork and get along with others, those students were placed on higher levels which resulted in increased privileges. Conversely, if students struggled to demonstrate such behaviors, they “lost” a level and privileges once earned were taken away.


In Pink’s terms, this exemplified a 2.0 approach to motivation. It might work effectively in the moment, but it did not lead students to internalize what they had learned nor to gain mastery in coping with their emotions.


Embracing Self-Motivation

After a significant turnaround, Dearborn now places clinicians directly in the classroom. They are able – in the moment – to encourage students to draw on their intrinsic drive to learn and make things better for themselves and those around them (purpose).


Staff members essentially ask students to embrace the idea that they can work through difficulties on their own (autonomy) and can develop the skills they need to do so (mastery). Students may be surprised when they realize what they can accomplish, which in the end, further motivates them to truly change and grow.


And isn’t this what we and our students are striving for? With autonomy, mastery, and purpose Dearborn Academy students will be equipped to face challenges and overcome any obstacle with an unshakeable drive.