“Focusing on autonomy, mastery, and purpose helps my classroom be a place where both my students and I want to be. And that makes all the difference.” reported Mary Davenport, a high school English teacher. She shares her insights and examples as she is guided by the concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose from Daniel Pink’s writing in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”
Ready Mary’s article, “Boosting High School Students’ Sense of Agency and Motivation” here.
Find Mary on Twitter: @eternitymod
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley ponders out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’M delighted you’re here.
Steve: 00:34 Quality learning from agency and motivation. An Edutopia article titled, “Boosting High School Students’ Sense of Agency and Motivation” caught my attention. It caught my attention because it’s connected to Daniel Pink’s work in the book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” I reached out to the article’s author, Mary Davenport who’s a teacher at an international school in São Paulo, Brazil. We had an awesome conversation so I’m thrilled that she agreed to join us on a podcast. So welcome Mary.
Mary : 01:09 So good to be here. It was awesome.
Steve: 01:11 I’m wondering if you’d give folks a little bit of about your teaching background and the current role you have there?
Mary : 01:18 Yeah, I’ve been teaching high school English for 15 years. I started in the urban areas of Denver, Colorado in the states, and that’s really where I fell in love with the kind of teaching that impacts both the brain and the heart. And now I’m overseas. This is my sixth year at an international school in São Paulo, Brazil and teaching high school, English, IB, and I’m also the community connections coordinator. So it’s pretty cool to live overseas.
Steve: 01:49 What do you get to do as community coordinator?
Mary : 01:53 That has a focus on social and emotional learning? So I take care of our high school advisory program, social emotional capacity
building for staff, for students. It’s awesome. I love it.
Steve: 02:02 So how did you get connected with Daniel Pink’s book, Drive?
Mary : 02:07 Our high school leadership team read it together as a book club for our own personal professional growth. And it’s actually really funny because a lot of our discussions while we were reading the book were actually about how we struggled to think how it would even apply in a school because schools just aren’t run like that. That’s not what school looks like anymore. And so it was marinating in the back of my mind. And then we did some work in our school, we’ve been doing some work with deeper learning and through that, thinking about how can I give students more creativity, more mastery, more purpose, more autonomy, I thought about Daniel Pink’s book and put that into practice and sort of brought those two worlds together, this book and this learning that I’ve been doing.
Steve: 02:53 So when I read your article, I recalled a quote from Alfie Kahn that I had used previously when writing a blog and I went back and found the quote. So it connected for me and I’d love to hear your thoughts about the connection with it. Alfie Kahn wrote, “the more effort we devote to getting students to pay attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming and persist on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration, the less likely we are to ask whether those assignments are actually worth doing or to rethink an arrangement where teachers mostly talk and students mostly listen.”
Mary : 03:37 It’s so cool that what I wrote made you think of that, like how much of an honor is that?
Mary : 03:43 But yes, this quote really makes me realize how much it’s about the teacher and not the student. When I read this and heard you say it and mention this, I was thinking about Daniel Pink. When he writes, “control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement,” and how much of our education has been centered around this idea of compliance. Sit there and do these tasks and be quiet and turn them in, and then you’ll pass and then you’ll move on and you’ll be done with it. And I love the word in this quote, “rethink” because really that’s ultimately, to me, what I’ve been doing as an educator is I’ve been rethinking and one of the words we use at our school is “unlearning” all the things that have led me down a path that leads to compliance rather than autonomy. And when I look at this quote, it’s like the teacher is pressing the student to do these things, even though they’re not meaningful. And instead of changing the teacher behavior, they’re trying to control it.
Mary : 04:45 It’s more about how can we take ownership and reflect on what’s working or not working from our end to make the learning meaningful
Steve: 04:53 I’ll tell you what it triggers for me. I used to use the example that if you if you went to kindergarten, the kids really weren’t into compliance. It’s why I love now working with early childhood folks and I say the joy of your job is the kids won’t allow you to teach. You’ve got to plan for their learning. A three and four year old is not gonna sit and take your teaching.
Mary : 05:25 I want that joy too. I just don’t want the early childhood to have that.
trip to head start. And if we began to look at how they’re setting the head start room up, that that’s not how you needed your classroom set up, but it was the mindset that you needed to have in your head. And I would use the example of you got a kid building something with the blocks and the teacher comes over and says, “it’s time to go to lunch, put the blocks away.” And you know, and little kid’s answer is, “it’s not done!” I would jokingly say, and the teacher says, it’s okay, it’s an A, and the kid says, I don’t care. It’s still not done. They’re the one driving it. I say, by fifth grade, it’s an A and the blocks are being put away and in too many places by high school, it’s a C and the blocks are being put away.
Mary : 06:25 Makes me so sad. It’s true.
Steve: 06:26 They’re into that power and the things are all there.
Mary : 06:30 Yeah.
Steve: 06:32 Your article takes the work of Pink and he builds it around the terms, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And I’m wondering if I could get you to take those terms kinda one at a time, define it a little bit, give us a why, but then maybe give us an example of something that you do connected to that. So you wanna jump in with autonomy?
Mary : 06:57 Yeah. Let’s start there. Although that’s not very autonomous, is it?
Mary : 07:07
Mary : 07:59 So some students might make a poster, some might make Google slides or other technology like a jam board, and some might just do what we would consider a regular old paper. Maybe somebody will surprise me. That would be exciting. But in that there was lots of options for students to take control of their own learning and drive #pink, right? Drive what they were gonna do and how they were gonna do it. That’s a major thing I think something I’ve really adapted into my practice over the last couple of years. And so if I want students to understand a concept, or if I wanna introduce text, or if I wanna show some examples, I give students lots of resources and then say, pick three. And some are videos, some are podcasts, some are paintings, some are written texts, but then they have the chance to explore and build their knowledge and understanding in a way that best suits them. And I really found that when students can choose what they’re doing, there’s a whole lot less of that, “what blocks? I just wanna go to lunch.” They’re in the blocks, like you said.
Steve: 09:06 So teacher autonomy becomes a part of student autonomy then?
Mary : 09:11 Oh my gosh. So much so. And I feel very lucky and I wrote about this in my article, I think sometimes the standards have shackled us
in our industry and what it’s done is it’s taken away the ability for the teacher to teach to their strength. And so I feel very fortunate that I work in a place where I can teach to my strengths and still collaborate. And that ultimately allows me to create the same space for my students. And it’s really sad, I think about what’s going on in the United States education system right now. I know a lot of people don’t feel that and there have been times in my career where I have not felt that. And I do my best work and my students do their best learning when I also have my own autonomy. I mean, that’s exactly what Pink writes about his book. He’s not actually talking about students, he’s talking about employees, right?
Steve: 10:02 Let’s go to the next one, mastery.
Mary : 10:05 Yeah. Just thinking about that idea of compliance, like we talked about earlier, and I think one of the benefits of starting my
career in urban education is I really learned the art and technique and science of scaffolding. And how do you support students across a range of abilities in a range of head spaces at any given moment? But I think in my career, what I’m learning is I’m creating students to just regurgitate what I’ve shown them, rather than thinking through what they’re doing. And so compliance is never gonna lead to mastery, ever. Students have to wrestle with what they’re learning. Like I wrote in my article, they need to be meaning makers, not just knowledge consumers. And so one of the ways that I’ve done that in my practice is, I do use some frames to help students to be better academic writers, but I always preface it now with this is one resource. You don’t have to use it. Writing is about choice and you make choices for certain purposes and audiences, and you have to have the agency to make those choices. And because of that, there’s more struggle, right? When I’m not being super clear, there’s a little bit of that middle ground, where students are floating in the ambiguity and they have to figure out what they’re gonna do. But that’s the exact thinking that gets them to learn in a lasting way, not just, “oh, I can do the graphic organizer that my teacher gave me.”
Steve: 11:39 What I’m hearing is that as a teacher, you need to keep process in mind versus just product, because you can probably get the kids faster to a product, but that product isn’t going to have the learning potential that the process you’re describing has.
Mary : 11:56 Exactly right. And I just wonder when we became so focused on pace instead of lasting learning, right? If they’re not engaged in the process, it’s not transferable. And so allowing them to be in that process and to struggle, there is so much a part of the learning.
Steve: 12:14 I use the, to what extent am I focused on learning versus to what extent am I focused on teaching? So if my focus is on teaching, I’m gonna take the easiest way to get there, the easiest way to teach this and get that product. But if my goal is learning, learning’s complex
Mary : 12:36 Yeah. And I think also, it puts a weight on me as a teacher if I’m gonna take that perspective that I actually have to check in with the students. Are they learning and are they learning what I think that they’re learning? Because it only doesn’t matter what I say, like, my ego is not important and what matters is what’s going on in their world, the outcome, the effect. And so that takes checking in with them and being very attentive to where they’re at in the process.
Steve: 13:07 I recently recorded a podcast with Trevor MacKenzie and his new book is on assessment and inquiry. And the key being what you just labeled – you were calling it a check in, but we really have to teach the kids to do the assessment. And then the kids give us the feedback that they’re finding.
Mary : 13:30 That’s exactly right. Yeah.
Steve: 13:32 They’re guiding our next steps.
Mary : 13:35 Yeah. That’s why I think one of the easiest ways to implement a focus on mastery in the classroom is through reflection for students. So we know the research says that the minute there’s a score and something, students don’t pay attention to the feedback. So I never give scores anymore until I’ve given just feedback. And then students have to reflect on that and wrestle with that and make some goals. And then they get the score and it brings them face to face with the learning, not the earning.
Steve: 14:04 One that I encouraged teachers to play with that is, I met a teacher who who won’t give the score until the kid tells the teacher what the score should be and why.
Steve: 14:16 So that forces them to go back and look at her their feedback
Mary : 14:30 Yeah. This one has always been a big passion of mine. I think about purpose in two ways. I think about one building on what students already know and approaching their education and their learning through a strengths based model as opposed to a deficiency based model. And then two, I think about how can I move this beyond the classroom? So, for example, I just taught a short story, one of my favorite short stories last week called, “Once Upon a Time.” And I had this provocation activity that had different images of security or different writing prompts, different map prompts, and they got to choose one to two things and what they were doing there was, A, Showing their agency, but two, they were tapping into what they already knew to sort of build that foundation for the text. And that’s one of the key parts of purpose is, how does this connect in my world to what I already know and to where I’m going?
Mary : 15:28 I think about it like hooks. Activating that background knowledge, creating that purpose in terms of like seamless learning is like, you’re putting the coat hangers that then the codes go on. It’s really important for deep lasting learning. And then I think the other thing that I try really hard to do is to make it relevant to them. And for me, as an English teacher, I feel very fortunate because there’s a lot of ways to do that. But even for example, in an advisory class last week, I had 24 very squirrly ninth graders and they were just not having it. And I just stopped and I went on my little soapbox that I just love to give that I was like, you know, what? What is gonna determine the success in your future is emotional literacy.
Mary : 16:14 It’s not gonna be knowledge. It’s not gonna be physical labor. It’s gonna be emotional literacy. And that is what we’re doing right now. This is about how can you be a person that understands who you are and understands the world around you? And just taking that moment to be like, this isn’t just about a class. This is about you and your life and your future and your relationships and your job and your success. Change the tone of even squirrly ninth graders. So I think that that’s really important – elevating it to something that matters to them. The hard work though, that requires I know my students.
Steve: 16:55 And so I have to commit. I can’t be relevant to people I don’t know.
Mary : 17:00 That’s exactly right. And that means I need to build that into my curriculum. That that’s not extra. That is the curriculum – knowing my students.
Steve: 17:10 So when you read Pink and it aligned with your thinking and what you knew and you moved to implementing it as much as possible, what would you say are some of the areas you find most challenging?
Mary : 17:26 This is such an interesting question because I think in our head as humans, it’s easy to go to the sidelines. We want the singular story in terms of what Adici says. And so it’s kind of like, I’ve sort of dealt with the argument within myself and also within the educational community that, well, students just can’t have free reign. Like you gotta control your class, right? Like, they just can’t run around and do whatever. And so I think there’s this misconception that it’s a dichotomy that you’re giving students agency or there’s order. And I would actually say my class is very ordered. I would actually prefer to use the word predictable, in light of trauma informed practice. My students need to know they’re safe in my class. They need to know what to expect. They need to know that I have their back.
Mary : 18:17 They need to know that their hearts are safe, otherwise they’re not gonna learn. And so I don’t see it as a dichotomy that they’re just running free and I have no control as a teacher, rather, it’s more, I’ve created the fence of the yard so they can run freely and play inside of this fence but the fence still keeps them safe. And then, of course, the elephant in the room, which is not an elephant in the room, we started talking about this. Even Pink in his book talks about like motivation 2.0 versus 1.0 versus 3.0. And schools are motivation 2.0 – carrot and stick. And so you’re, in some ways trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. How do we truly innovate education to be about lasting, meaningful learning rather than just checking boxes?
Steve: 19:07 So in many ways you work to minimize the negative impact of the compliance part. You accept that there’s a compliance part to it. We can go way beyond that.
Mary : 19:19 That’s right.
Steve: 19:20 You’re gonna create the opportunity for us to go way beyond that.
Mary : 19:23 Yeah. Well, and I think we can’t forget about neuroscience, right? There’s a certain way that teenagers brains develop. And in some ways the compliance keeps them safe until they’re fully developed, which is not even into their twenties. So it’s up to us to create that safe environment in which they can practice their agency, their autonomy.
Steve: 19:49 So I’m gonna try one in my phrases, see what you think of it. A phrase I like to use is, you need to create an environment that’s consistent and unpredictable.
Mary : 19:58 Consistent in it’s unpredictability, right?
Steve: 20:02 It’s consistent and that’s, for me the words you’re describing – safety and other words. I know this teacher, I know she knows me. I know there’s certain things that won’t happen, I don’t have to worry about that. That’s the consistent part, but, you can never tell what this woman’s gonna pull out of her sleeve.
Mary : 20:22
Steve: 20:24 Once it gets consistent and predictable. now you’ve put me to sleep.
Mary : 20:31 My favorite days in the classroom, actually, I run circle practice in my class. It’s something that I really believe in and I think
makes a difference in the climate and the culture of the class. And so I put the desks in a circle, I turn the lights down, we have a centerpiece that has all these rocks that I’ve collected over the years and students have gifted me and they’re the talking pieces for the circle. And the moment students walk in, you know, their eyes are like, “oh, what are we doing?” And it’s that like, surprise of, today’s special, like something special is happening today. And so that is that consistent unpredictability, I guess as you’re saying.
Steve: 21:10 Yeah. And the brain research supports that. Uniqueness is part of capturing the brain’s attention.
Mary : 21:21 Absolutely right.
Steve: 21:21 Too consistent is closing it down. You wanna give us the most rewarding part of making some of the changes you’ve made?
Mary : 21:31 Yeah. I think where I really first tried this approach and this philosophy on if you will, this style, where I took it for a test drive is, we did an advocacy project in my grade 10 classes a couple of years ago, our grade 10 students did. And basically, we worked with the standard of clear communication. That’s what we worked with. And that communication varies according to purpose and audience and context. But other than that, students were to choose something that they were passionate about, an injustice in their world, in their local community. And it honestly was the first time in my teaching career where students were, they were in the flow. They just were so enraptured by, I get to do what I want, I get to do what’s important to me, I get to express it in a way that is meaningful to me. And I had videos, I had infographics, I had petitions, I had speeches, and they’re all working towards the standard of clear communication, but they’re doing it in a way that A, is authentic and meaningful and B, they’re interested in, and the classroom oozed of enthusiasm. And man, I love that. Like when does that happen?
Mary : 23:03 I do like, you know, little tear, like, oh my god.
Steve: 23:06 And then you take another step and go, “somebody’s gotta see this besides me!”
Mary : 23:11 I know like those moments, right? Like where is the camera? You know, those kids. So that’s the important part.
Steve: 23:21 Well, Mary, thank you so much. You met my expectation of of us having an interesting conversation for a podcast. I will put the link to your article in the lead-in to the podcast so people can find that. Is there a best way for listeners to follow up with you if they wanna ask a question or share an insight of theirs?
Mary : 23:45 Yeah. I’d love to chat anything education related on Twitter. So my handle is at @eternitymod.
Steve: 23:52 Okay. We’ll plug that in. Thank you so much. Have a great day.
Mary : 23:57 Thank You. Loved it so much. Thanks.
Steve: 24:01 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.