Tuesday, April 26

Time Alone with TED

My husband is off to Q Portland 2011 today. Our whole team of TNL pastors are attending the conference and I look forward to the energy and inspiration they return with.

Since we at home are on Spring Break, he took my youngest two sons with him to Oregon so they could play with my parents for a few days. My oldest is in school and I stayed behind in Denver to care for him and hang out in the evenings. The two of us began our morning at Starbucks for some hot chocolate -- good start before I dropped him off at school. He hopped out of the car and said, “Go have fun, Mom!”

So, what do I do for fun? I bet you can’t guess.

I came home to watch TED lectures online. Call me whatever you’d like, but I’ve always wanted to just sit and absorb some of these ideas. Today’s the day!

I watched this one and was inspired:  Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation.   If you don't want to spend 18 minutes watching it the gist is this, "Rewards narrow our focus and restrict our possibility... they only work in a narrow band of circumstances." While he wasn't taking it this direction, this applies to education as much as it does to business. The rewards we offer our kids for completing a task, a lesson, a project are typically extrinsic and unrelated to the actual task. i.e.: "If you memorize the Bible verse/poem/Gettysburg address you can pick something out of the treasure box."  This creates a situation where my son's mind can actually only focus on the reward. The task becomes a secondary and much smaller slice of his focus, so he'll forget the Bible verse once he gets the reward. There's no connection, no buy-in on his part. I might feel like a cool mom-teacher, but he didn't actually learn anything.

Dan Pink also said, "If/then rewards destroy creativity." And I'd have to say that based on my experience, this is unequivocally true. My sons will do the minimum it takes to get the reward; and the product won't be colorful, personal, or though provoking. If I want my child to truly engage in something, I can't hold a "carrot" out for him hoping that he'll be inspired. He'll only focus on reaching that carrot when what I really want is for him to experience the journey to new knowledge.

Inspiration begins within. Dan pointed out that "unseen intrinsic drive matters." For instance, letter grades are essentially a carrot. If you answer everything correctly, you get the carrot. You don't want your grade to fall, so you continue to answer correctly. In this instance, answering correctly doesn't come out of a bubbling well of inner passion. It's only a means to an end. In order to think creatively you have to develop something else in the process besides its end.

Some studies are showing that these extrinsic motivators actually make productivity and creativity decline. So what are we left with? Pink says this:
  1. Autonomy - the urge to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery - the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  3. Purpose - the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. 

This is the good news for homeschoolers. At our very core, I think we agree that these are the goals we strive for. As much as my son in a classroom wants to learn toward mastery, his mastery will stop at the end of the school year. -- I remember being in middle school and throwing out all my folders at the end of the school year. The school even provided the big trash cans in the hallways.  But my son at home can keep pursuing an idea, a craft, a problem, until his thirst is quenched.  Mastery is a big buzzword in homeschooling because that is our goal.  Grades are not. Autonomy is what we hope to move all of our children toward as they grow in maturity.  But if you release a little more to their direction, they'll have more to actually take on.  And if you align what they are learning with their own individual purpose, that God-given bent that is different for each of them, you'll have an inspired, passionate student (who will naturally move toward autonomy and mastery).

Take this final portion of your school year to re-examine your methods through this lens.  Is what you're trying to accomplish in agreement with these three areas in the life of your child?  If not, give everything a tweak.  Give them 20 minutes to do anything they want, read or study anything they want, build anything they want and see what they move toward.  Throw a problem out for them and see how they'd solve it.  Or give them a project day where they can take anything from your study that week and turn it into something tangible, self-directed, self-created.  It may just be the thing that they remember forever.  No treasure box necessary.


  1. I love the TED lectures! This Dan Pink one is great. I've already started to work on reexamining how my curriculum and classroom management can assist in encouraging that autonomy, mastery, and purpose! Hope you enjoy the rest of your break!

  2. Two observations:
    What are you doing spending time with TED? He is mine!
    My first thought...well after the Tedd thought...was that this is something that would be good for Heather. Teens are all about autonomy so maybe they can choose some part of the curriculum to master and then find purpose by sharing that with another student.


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