November 04, 2015

How To Motivate Educators… And Everyone Else, Too

How To Motivate Educators… And Everyone Else, Too

It’s amazing how durable some myths can be, even in the face of consistent irrefutable research. Educause 2015 keynote speaker Daniel Pink has made a cause of attacking the myth of the carrot and stick approach to employee motivation. As he has pointed out in his TED talk and his book, Drive, 50 years of social science research has dramatically and consistently proven that if-then rewards are not just ineffective, but are counter-productive when applied to cognitive tasks. The research, including nine studies by four economists, has shown that If-then rewards, while good for simple, physical, and short-term algorithmic tasks, simply do not work when even rudimentary cognitive skills are called for.

Pink’s advice: autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the true motivators of high performance. Those are the keys to reversing the sad state of employee engagement as reported by Gallup in January, 2015. That survey found that only 31.5% of employees are engaged and 17.5% are actively disengaged.


Employees crave autonomy over their time, the teams they are part of, the techniques they can use to address their work, and the tasks they employ to achieve their goals. Pink gives a number of examples of companies that have designated special time periods for employees to be creative with results including the invention of graphene, Adsense, and Gmail. The half of a Chinese factory obscured from the watchful eyes of management outperformed the other half by 15%. Pink suggests carving out islands of autonomy to good things happen.


Employees can be motivated by meaningful feedback. The concept of meaningful feedback, however, stands in stark contrast to the annual performance review, which Pink calls awkward kabuki theater performed in a small room with your boss. The current generation is accustomed to instant feedback, often by social media.


In an experiment that tracked how employees felt at the end of each work day through 12,000 diary entries, the biggest motivator was, “making progress in meaningful work”. Chefs who can see their guests consuming their creations are motivated to make tastier food. On the other hand, a primary reason why employees leave is that they don’t feel they are making a contribution or are valued.

Managers spend too much time on telling employees how to do things, but not enough time on why they should do it. The “why” conversations could easily start within the IT department.

Students involved in a Studio H design and build project. Studio H is classes are run by Project H.

Students involved in a Studio H design and build project. Studio H classes are run by Project H.

“I’m a 10-year old girl and I know how to weld. What can’t I do?”

Emily Pilloton, TED presenter, writer, founder of Project H, and Educause 2015 keynote speaker, believes that experiences matter more than content. Project H uses design as a medium to connect in-school STEAM learning to out-of-school possibility. 92% of their graduating high school students go on to two- or four-year colleges and 91% of their Camp H girls say they finished camp feeling more confident, creative, and excited about school.

“Seeking is more important than knowing”
“We is greater than I”
“Curiosity is more important than passion”

– Emily Pilloton

When she was growing up, MacGyver was her early hero. Like Angus, she enjoyed solving problems outside of the box. She related well to her math teachers who gave her “permission to be a nerd.” When she graduated from college she had $80,000 in student loans.

Studio H design and construction projects: one of two tiny houses built on trailers for the homeless, and a farmers market.

Studio H design and construction projects: one of two tiny houses built on trailers for the homeless, and a farmers market.

One of the projects Emily described was working with students at a public school in eastern North Carolina to design a farmers market. Like with all Project H activities, the students built lots of prototypes and heavily exercised their math skills. Then they constructed the full-scale market. The finished project led to four new businesses and 14 new full time jobs for the community.

“I gave someone a place to live.
Oh, and I got an A in this class and know how to build a house.”
                 – Project H Student

As the final Educause 2015 speaker, Emily sent the audience home with this parting advice:

Practice creativity (as a learner first) every day, in order to instill it in others. Now go home and build things!

About The Contributor:
Bob NilssonDirector of Vertical Solutions Marketing

Bob Nilsson is the director of vertical solutions marketing at Extreme Networks. In this role, Mr. Nilsson leads the Extreme Networks strategy and programs for vertical markets including Healthcare, Higher Education, K-12 Education, Federal Government, and Hospitality. He has over 30 years of experience in marketing IT systems to Global 1000 companies worldwide. Before joining Extreme Networks Bob was VP Marketing at Clear Methods. Prior to that Bob held senior marketing positions at Digital Equipment and HP. Bob holds an SB degree in EE from MIT and MBA from Columbia Business School.

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