A person free to choose their work is more productive than someone who must obey the will of powerful overseers. Once masters are removed from the situation, people do not stop working. We still need to feed and clothe ourselves, even with no boss telling us what to do.
There are two opposing theories about human motivation. One says that if a person is given freedom to create their own work life, they will choose to do nothing. The other says that if a person is given autonomy, they will take ownership of their work and thrive.
So which theory is correct? It depends. Repetitious and mindless work that is not intrinsically rewarding is avoided unless some external reward or punishment encourages us to do it. More and more of this type of work is being replaced by machines. This is true in education.
Digital tools now available to teachers are replacing mundane aspects of our job. Grading can be done by computers and programs are being developed which can even grade many aspects of student compositions.
There are parts of our job, however, that we do voluntarily on the weekends and throughout the summer. We know that much of our work is deeply rewarding. For this part of our job, extra pay will not serve to motivate us.
Researchers show that, “Money is only a ‘threshold motivator’. People must be paid well and be able to take care of their families. Once a company meets this baseline, money does not much affect performance and motivation”.
Work has the possibility of being deeply rewarding. Those who avoid work or who have not experienced motivating workplaces have not known the pleasure of doing an important job for the pure joy of doing that work.
As teachers, we are not only public employees seeking more autonomy for ourselves, we are also accountable for the productivity of our students. Just as we seek more professional freedoms, we can benefit our students by creating a work environment of autonomy for them.
Education researcher, Sugata Mitri has shown how students take charge of their own learning when teachers step out their way. He questions the role of teachers in a world where students have instant access to the collective knowledge of the world through the internet.
He advocates that teachers create a Least Restrictive Environment for our students.
In his most famous experiment, Dr. Mitri placed a computer in the side of an abandoned building on a street corner in India. He video recorded young children walking up to the computer and searching information online.
The children had never seen a computer before, did not speak English, and had no one to show them how to work the computer.
Despite those setbacks, they were surfing the internet within hours. They were given the freedom and tools to do what they wanted, and they began to educate themselves, with no instructions or adult guidance.
Most of our students speak a major world language, carry computers in their pockets, have highly trained teachers, and yet score poorly on international academic tests. Is it possible to maximize student learning by getting out of their way to create an autonomous work environment for them?
Since the famous “Hole in the Wall” experiments in India, Dr. Mitri has created learning centers all over the world. He calls them SOLE’s – Self Organizing Learning Environments.
A SOLE consists of a computer, four chairs and the name of an adult that students can contact on SKYPE ® if they need help. In a SOLE, students choose what they want to study and their work partners. They can choose to meet at any SOLE at any time they feel like studying.
Sugata Mitri has shown that with the encouragement of an adult – often a grandparent with no educational training, four students can sit in front of a computer and learn any topic they choose – from learning a new language to biology taught in a foreign language.
This new way to conceptualize our classrooms also questions our roles as educators. If Google can provide them any information our students seek, then what is our new role in the classroom?
We are no longer their only access to knowledge, but we can be a meaningful source of context and encouragement. Our new role and new student learning processes are less mundane with the growing influence of technology in our profession.
The current structure of curriculum standards and the brick and mortar school house with the set time schedule that comes with it, do not facilitate the student autonomy necessary to implement SOLE’s into our current educational paradigm.
Our current paradigm also does not grant the teacher autonomy which is necessary to make student freedom possible. Is there a conceptual framework schools could start to experiment with that would grant teachers autonomy while maintaining accountability for the success of their students?
Motivation researcher Daniel Pink has shown how workers take charge of their own work when bosses step out of their way. In his book Drive, he discusses a concept several businesses are currently implementing. The concept is called ROWE – Results Only Work Environment.
He explains that, “in a ROWE workplace, people do not have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time – or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them”.
People still have specific goals they have to reach, but they can choose how to accomplish them. This work arrangement at first is challenging for workers, because they are accustomed to other people dictating their work week, but greater productivity and innovation result from real work autonomy.
What motivates students to work in a SOLE and teachers working in a ROWE is autonomy over four areas of our work – task, time, technique and team. It is intrinsically motivating to work if we choose what to work on, when we work, the methods for completing our tasks and the team of people we can work with.
When we are given the opportunity to work more autonomously by those who are paying our salaries, we will perform better. Such a situation would be so unique and humanizing that we would be foolish to go somewhere else to work.
People who have worked in ROWE’s stay longer at their job than traditional workplaces, because “the freedom to do great work is more valuable and harder to match than a pay raise”.
The same goes for our students. They will succeed more than we can imagine when they have autonomous choice over their tasks, time, technique and team.
Some work is mundane and needs to be done, such as memorizing formulas and key terms. These types of tasks can be interspersed with more interesting tasks or rewarded with extrinsic motivators.
With the introduction of technology into our lives, mundane tasks can be completed by computers. This unleashes the possibility of a far more complex and intrinsically rewarding workplace, in which teachers and students can only succeed if we are given greater autonomy over our work tasks.