A message to graduates

graduateThere’s a lot of noise out there.

No doubt you’ve heard it by now. The advice. The questions. The expectations. The clichés about graduating, moving on, transitions, working hard, the value of education, perseverance, wearing sunscreen. . .

So tell me, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? What do you mean, you’re not sure? Shouldn’t you know by now? I mean, how much time do you need?

Oh, you have it all under control? Great. Did you know that most of you are going to have at least fourteen jobs–many of which don’t currently exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented yet, to solve problems that we can’t even conceive of today–before you turn thirty-four? Please, tell me more about how you have this all figured out.

Don’t get me wrong. Aspirations are good. Plans are good. A direction is good. Not sure what you want to be when you grow up yet? That’s just fine too. Because the fact of the matter is that according to Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” humans are notoriously terrible at predicting what will make their future selves happy anyway.

Want proof? Write your future self a letter detailing your current expectations for the next four or five years—your investments of time, money and energy—all the things you will do so that your future self is happy. Don’t open it for ten years. Try not to think, “Oh, how cute,” when you read it. Cut this column out and put it in the envelope for good measure. Hello future self. Hate to say I told you so.

Okay, back to the present. What to do then? Step into the unknown and don’t be afraid to fail.

There is an old story about the Knights of the Round Table in which they set out on a quest to find the Holy Grail. It was a serious undertaking, but when they set out, instead of taking well-worn roads or trails, each knight began his quest by entering into the forest at the place where it was thickest. Why? Each knew that if he were to follow an established path, it was someone else’s path–following it would never lead him to his ultimate goal.

It’s a good lesson. So, dear graduate, create your own path. Enter the forest at the darkest point. Blaze a fresh trail into the great unknown. For if you find and follow a path, it may seem like easier going for awhile, but in the end it will always be someone else’s path, and you will never reach your full potential.

And as far as failure goes, mythology teaches us time and again that where we stumble is where our greatest treasures are hidden. In “The Arabian Nights,” for example, there is a story of a man plowing a field when his plow gets stuck. He digs down to see what it’s caught on and discovers a ring. After more digging he finds the ring attached to a door . . . which opens to an underground cave loaded with jewels.

So go forth into your wilderness; stumble into the darkness of your unknown with faith and courage. You will find your way.

On stumbling, Joseph Campbell writes, “If you bring love to that moment—not discouragement—you will find the strength is there. Any disaster that you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege!

“Then, when looking back at your life, you will see that the moments which seemed to be great failures followed by wreckage were the incidents that shaped the life you have now. You’ll see that this is really true. Nothing can happen to you that is not positive. Even though it looks and feels at the moment like a negative crisis, it is not. The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.”

Life. It’s a ride. It’s a journey. It’s a privilege. And it’s noisy. Now, more than ever, we need you to be true to yourself. Be who you are. Don’t be bullied or frightened into holding back your true self. You have brilliance within you. Only you can bring your unique light into the world. And you must.

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Should schools be run more like businesses?

5869014858_b86c9ec17b_mPerhaps you have heard it said that schools should be run more like businesses–that public schools are soft, undisciplined, ineffective and would do well to refocus their attention on the bottom line. Many people hold that competition will sharpen that focus, bringing schools back to the tough love approach on which we rugged individualistic Americans thrive.

It’s an argument that is gaining steam across the nation as governments are beginning to shift more and more tax dollars away from public schools in order to support privately run schools for profit. So, let’s examine this idea for a moment. Should schools be run more like businesses? And does competition make the system stronger?

Or more to the point, should we help schools succeed by making them compete (like businesses do) for scarce resources? Does the fear of punishing a school or a teacher for poor test scores motivate institutions and educators to perform better? Does the competition created by school choice really lead to better schools, better learning, more rounded students and a better prepared work force?

Does a pay for performance model really work for teachers the same way it is believed to work for sales people? Or does it pit teacher against teacher as they compete against each other for a limited (and shrinking) pool of resources as states continue to cut public education funds?

Let’s examine this. First, because you know how much I value scientific research, let’s look at the data. It is clear and compelling–and ignored. None of it supports the theory that competition leads to better learning or schools. In fact, research on motivation points to the exact opposite. For complex tasks involving creative problem solving applications, competition and rewards actually lead to poorer performance.

For complex thinking tasks, bigger carrots and sharper sticks are counter productive. But don’t take my word for it. Look up Alfie Kohn and his book, “Punished by Rewards,” Carol Dweck and her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” or Dan Pink, and his fascinating on line TED talk or his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”

I’m not making this up. Look at the research. Yet because a culture of competition has been hardwired into our cultural DNA, the results and conclusions of thousands of scientific studies and decades worth of research continue to be ignored.

You want the bottom line? Here it is. Schools are not businesses. Kids are not widgets or market share or profit, and we should not be competing for them like chips in a poker game.

They are dynamic minds and restless spirits and bundles of endless possibilities. They are not raw materials. They are not pruned, manufactured, or produced. And we cannot reject them at the door like raw material if they are flawed.

Thinking competition is the best path to excellence is a shallow relic of the 20th century factory economic model where compliance was valued above all else—where success depended upon obedient and mindless factory workers who kept their heads down, did what they were told, and didn’t ask questions because doing so slowed down productivity.

Got a better way to do something? That’s someone else’s job. Just follow directions. Mind authority. Stop thinking so much. Fill in the bubbles.

But learning is not compliant or efficient and it’s certainly not ruggedly tough or independent. Not real learning. Real learning is interdependent and deliciously messy.

Don’t get me wrong. If you read the research, it’s clear that competition has its place. But it’s a blunt tool most effectively used by authority to motivate unthinking workers to comply and complete mind-numbing tasks. The 21st century is a new age. Those who learn, value and are able to cooperate, analyze, synthesis, invent, innovate and create will succeed. It is to them that the spoils of victory will go.

Those who are focused on carrots, sticks and bonuses will find their market shares continue to shrink—and their jobs shipped to a place where they can be done much cheaper.

Does competition really help education run more like the successful cutting edge businesses of the 21st century?

Look again.

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How to use your fear of loss for fun and profit

Roll the diceMany years ago, there was a teenager named Erin who, while shopping for Christmas presents, came across a black dress that she just had to have. Having spent all her money on presents for others though, she no longer had enough to buy it. So she asked the store if they might put the dress aside until she could return the following Monday with her mother. The store said that would not be possible.

Disappointed, Erin went home and told her mother about the dress anyway. Much to her surprise and delight, Erin’s mother said that if she liked the dress that much, she would loan her the money until Erin could pay it back. After school the next Monday, Erin returned to the store only to find that she was too late. Someone else had bought the dress.

What Erin did not know until Christmas morning however, was that while she was in school, her mom had gone to the store and bought the dress as a gift. Despite the passage of time, Erin still remembers that Christmas as one of her fondest, and the dress is still a valued treasure—all because she had received what she once believed to be lost.

On a similar note, I still remember the intense wave of relief I experienced upon finding the wallet I thought I’d lost during a family vacation years ago.

What is it about losing something that makes having it again such a joy? To answer that question, Daniel Kahneman author of, “Thinking Fast and Slow” discusses an economic and psychological phenomenon called, “loss aversion.” Turns out, we humans are naturally loath to lose value that we already own—or think we own.

Consider, for example, the following gamble on the toss of a coin: Tails, you lose $100; heads you win $150. Would you accept the bet? Despite the possibility of gaining more than you could lose, if you’re like most people, you would not. As Kahneman states, “For most people, the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150.” Clearly, losses loom larger than gains.

But the really interesting question becomes: at what point do you take the bet? How much does the possible gain have to be in order for you to take the risk? Once you find this number for yourself, you’ve identified your personal “loss aversion ratio.” According to Kahneman, few people will take the gamble until the possible gain reaches at least $200, twice as much as the potential loss. This works out to a loss aversion ratio of 2.

So why do we avoid losses so much more than we seek gains? The answer might be found by looking at the problem from an evolutionary standpoint. If you have enough resources to survive, while an increase may be helpful, losing basic needs like food, water or shelter might kill you.

So what does any of this have to do with teaching and learning? A wise person once said, “If you really want to get something done, you’ve got three options: do it yourself, pay top dollar, or forbid your teenagers to do it.”

Let’s examine this for a moment through the lens of personal freedom. We humans hate to lose freedoms that we already have. For evidence of this, you need only look at recent sales since the possibility of gun regulation. Therefor, as parents and teachers, we should be very aware of the freedoms our children have—because it’s a heck of a lot easier to withhold something we’ve never given, than to take away something they already have.

Consider the impulsive sixteen-year-old. Is it easier to delay getting his driver’s license, or take the keys away later? Or what about that cell phone? Is it easier to wait until you’re sure your child can use it responsibly, or take it away after it’s been abused?

On the other hand, studies have also shown that the threat of a loss may also be a greater motivator than the possibility of a reward. It might sound cruel, but consider what might happen if instead of rewards for good grades, your child had to pay for bad ones. Or what might happen if you agreed to give a certain amount of money away if you did not accomplish a desired goal.

It’s a hardball psychological tactic. But sometimes, a little fear of loss might be just what we need to achieve the gains we desire.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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5 ways to trick your brain into finishing what you start

5115357756_15b545de28_mIt’s the end of January. Do you know where your new year’s resolutions are?

Maybe all’s well and you’re still eating healthy, exercising regularly, you haven’t had a soda or a cigarette, and you’re still on track to read two books a month. That’s great. But what if things haven’t gone so smoothly? You could just forget about it and move on. Life happens after all. Nobody’s going to blame you. You’re busy. You’re stressed. Maybe it’s best to just try again next year.

Or perhaps you’re not yet ready to hoist the white flag and admit defeat. Or perhaps you’re still hanging in there, but you’re also beginning to realize that sustaining your new year’s resolution is going to be a lot tougher than you’d thought. What do you do?

First, realize you’re not alone. Motivation, persistence, and good old fashioned stick-to-it-ness, is a universal issue. Here’s a great example. Never in our history has learning been made so available. Certainly the Internet has made accessing information easier than ever. Add to that, massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they’ve come to be known, are real, often free, courses offered by elite universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Ohio State. They’ve become so popular that online education companies are beginning to pop up that make searching and signing up for these kinds of courses super easy. Coursera.org, launched last August, has already drawn over two million users—a faster and more popular launch than either Facebook or Twitter.

So what does all this have to do with your struggle to follow through on your new years resolutions? Well, as it turns out, according to a recent article in the New York Times, less than 10 percent of all MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for.

As a teacher, I find that statistic fascinating. What it tells me is that most people, left to their own devices, lack the ability to stick with their goals and follow them through to the end. Motivation is important. Persistence is important. We know this. Yet, as it turns out, most people are unable to harness the psychological skills of intrinsic motivation that will allow them to direct their own lives.

So what to do? Here are a few tips:

  • Write it down. I know it sounds silly, but studies have actually shown that goals that have been written down are significantly more likely to be accomplished.
  • Share your goal with a friend. Or better yet. Make a public announcement. There’s nothing like a public commitment to hold you accountable.
  • Just start. In their book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduce an interesting concept they call, “choice architecture.” Take a look at the choices you must make to keep your goal going. Often it’s not the big obstacles that are stopping us. As Thaler and Sunstein point out, “small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior.” Sometimes just getting over that initial hump is all you need. So fill out that application, call for that appointment, or put that step class on your calendar.
  • Harness the power of inertia. Thaler and Sunstein also say, “Never underestimate the power of inertia.” Try building a new habit by committing to it for only thirty days. Often, by the end of that time inertia has kicked in, making sustaining the habit much easier.
  • Use data as a motivational tool. Often we get discouraged because we can’t see the progress we are making. Keeping a record helps make achievement visible. Put numbers to your efforts—hours practiced, words written, pages read, minutes exercised. It’s also helpful to turn those numbers into visually motivating graphs or charts.

As an added bonus, that trick of turning your data into a visual graphic is also particularly useful whenever some smart alec says to you, “It’s the middle of January. Do you know where your new year’s resolutions are?” Now, not only will you be able to tell him. You can show him. A picture, as it turns out, may be worth more than a thousand words in this case. It may also represent the successful achievement of your goals.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org

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How the pros use the psychology of persuasion to convince us to buy now

Credit card backgroundThe psychology of persuasion has always fascinated me–probably because I stink at it.

When I was in college, I worked for a while as a salesman at a Slumberland store. Maybe I wasn’t fired . . . technically. I was, after all, the model employee–never late, always responsible, well dressed, pleasant with the customers. I just never sold anything. Being a bit of an introvert, every prospect seemed to me like that cute girl I was too shy to talk to.

And yet, the older I get the more I realize how valuable a skill persuasion really is. From getting that promotion to getting your team to buy in; from vying for your movie choice on date night, to getting your teen to do her homework; persuasion is as practical a day-to-day skill as there is.

That’s why I found the following story so fascinating. It illustrates just how easily those who understand a little about persuasive psychology can manipulate the rest of us. In his book, “Influence: Science and Practice,” Dr. Robert Cialdini shares how his brother Richard sold cars to pay his way through college. He didn’t work on a lot or for a dealer. Instead, he scoured newspaper ads for cars he could buy near the bottom of their blue book range then legitimately resell near the top. And he always got his asking price.

How did he do it?

The ads always came out on Sunday and he was good enough at writing them that his phone often began ringing that morning. Next, for those interested in seeing the car, he began scheduling appointments—for the same time. So if four people called, they were all scheduled for, say, 2:00 that afternoon. The trick of simultaneous scheduling created an air of competition that always closed the deal—and quickly.

I’m far from a champion seller. But every once in awhile I’ll put an ad in Craigslist to sell something we no longer need. While I’ve never scheduled simultaneous appointments, I have noticed that people do become more interested after learning others have made inquiries.

Black Friday shoppers know the feeling. What most don’t realize however, is how much they are actually being manipulated. Like the chum in the water stimulating a feeding frenzy, Black Friday deals get masses of people to do things they normally wouldn’t. Students of influence call this The Scarcity Principle—and it has the power to cloud the minds of the most rational and frugal among us. It’s what fuels prices for rare baseball cards, coins and antiques. It’s that sense of competition and rivalry that auctioneers try to stimulate in their bidders.

Regardless of utility, the pressures of scarcity always increase the perceived value of an item. The less available something is the more desirable it becomes. Notice how often “supplies are limited” or how many, “one time offers” you see.

Richard Cialdini added competition to scarcity and with it, paid his way through college. The first prospect to arrive would typically begin by inspecting the car, noticing any flaws and asking if there was any room to negotiate. And then the second prospect would arrive—changing everything.

As Cialdini writes, “The availability of the car to either prospect suddenly became limited by the presence of the other. Richard claims it was possible to watch the agitation grow on the first buyer’s face. His leisurely assessment of the car’s pros and cons had suddenly become a now-or-never rush to a decision over a contested resource. If he didn’t decide for the car—at Richard’s asking price—in the next few minutes, he might lose it for good to that . . .that . . . lurking newcomer over there. If these conditions alone weren’t enough to secure a favorable purchase decision immediately, the trap snapped shut as soon as the third 2:00 appointment arrived on the scene.”

The moral of the story depends, of course, on whether you’re buying or selling. Used ethically, sharing honest information with a buyer on the fence about someone else’s interest might be just the nudge he needs to make a decision. Understanding that competition for a used car (or anything) doesn’t make it run better or last longer, may be exactly what shoppers need to remember in order to walk away from that now-or-never deal.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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Constructing the enemy: Inside the mind of a sports fan

SchadenfreudeSchadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

This post is perhaps a week late, but it took me that long to process some of the recent banter between Vikings and Packers fans. Before we get to it though, a quick exercise–a short-answer pop quiz, if you will. Fill in the blank: Vikings/Packers fans are __________.  This obviously works better if you’re fully invested in this border rivalry, but if not, simply substitute other teams or groups–political parties works great.

So, did that get your dander up a bit? If not, try a different combination and consider the following recently excerpt from totalpackers.com:

“Perhaps a less discussed, but equally if not more important . . . is that we Packers fans get to bask in the joy and ecstasy of not just a Packers playoff victory, but also in the delicious Schadenfreude that comes from a debilitating Vikings loss. That makes it twice as sweet!

That has to hurt — for Vikings fans. But their loss and pain is our gain. Why? Because the Minnesota Vikings and their fans are our enemies. They and so many of their fans epitomize all that is soulless and wrong, albeit inept.

Given the good nature of most Packers fans (Lambeau Field is probably the most friendly venue to visiting fans, even of hated rivals in the league), the importance of this is sometimes lost. We know how to love our Packers, but sometimes we forget how — or why — to hate the Minnesota Vikings and those who support them.

While there are doubtless many venues that illustrate what a disgraceful breed most Vikings fans, and while so much of our history with the Minnesota Vikings ought to inspire hatred and bloodlust . . .”

Now, relax. This propagandizing is just all in good fun right? To be fair, surely Vikings fans use this sort of language too. And so do Bears fans, and Pistons fans, and hockey fans, and soccer fans, and liberals, and conservatives, and terrorists, and hate groups. The key step here–and it’s amazing how easy this is to do–is to separate or distance oneself from another in order to create an “other”: an entity that is not like you. Then it’s much easier to disassociate with that person or group. Once that distinction has been made, and the idea that the person is clearly not like you takes hold, this “other,” just naturally becomes less human. This “other” may then become the enemy, and the more pain and misfortune the other suffers, the better.

In any contest, we prefer the side that is more like us. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Association Principle. The distinguished and prolific author, Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he (or she) wins, you win.”

The self is clearly at stake. Our public prestige rises when our side wins, and it falls when our side loses. We feel real and escalating emotions of joy and pride the higher the perceived stakes. Just listen to the language fans use after a victory. We say, “We won!” and “We’re number one! We’re number one!” not “They’re number one!” or “Our team is number one!” Unless, that is, our team has just lost, in which case we will often distance, and protect, our fragile self by saying, “They lost.” The devil is in the pronoun.

Looked at objectively, this is insane. Seen through the lens of a sports fan however, not only does this make perfect sense, it’s an admired trait! The more emotionally invested a person—the better fan he or she is. The more pain they feel after a loss, the more euphoria they feel after a win. We call these people true and diehard fans.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I am Viking fan myself. Over the years, this association has given me the unique opportunity to feel the very real and physical stress responses during the course of any game—muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms—as well as the emotions of joy and agony. Love me or hate me, because it is clear that somewhere deep within my warped and fragile psyche, I believe the Vikings really are me.

Perhaps however, bigger questions loom, like: Who are you? Are we really that much different? Do our associations really make us winners and losers? And, what is it, exactly, that I win, when you lose?

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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The 3 pillars of innovation

1814156778_f5b7e6ac12_mSo, I’ve got this amazing new idea for a business model. It’s going to be big! And you, loyal reader, are completely welcome to get in on the ground floor for free.

Here’s the deal:

Take a bunch of highly skilled people from around the world and get them to volunteer their skill and knowledge—maybe twenty to thirty hours a week. Together then, we create this really great thing, amazing, revolutionary stuff–best in the world. Next—and this is the best part—we give it away for free!

I know what you’re thinking. It’s not the traditional business model, maybe. You’re wondering why anyone brilliant enough to create anything this good might volunteer to do it for nothing, right? Or maybe you think I’m just blowing smoke.

Or maybe, just maybe, this sounds a little familiar. Maybe you’re remembering something you once read about a computer operating system called Linux, which powers one out of four corporate servers in Fortune 500 companies and more than 90% of today’s 500 fastest supercomputers; or WordPress, which you may have heard gives away the software that runs over 60 million websites including business sites such as Ebay, CNN, The New York Times and Forbes; or perhaps you’re thinking this sounds a bit like the Apache web server software that serves 55% of all active websites; or maybe you’re thinking of Wikipedia, a little outfit disrupting the world of encyclopedia publishing.

All of these examples and more have been created and maintained by highly skilled people that are literally giving away their time and talent. And, as it turns out, what they are collaborating to create is better than anything made for profit using the traditional corporate business model.

How is this possible? Because these are not businesses or organizations as much as they are ecosystems. The traditional rules of motivation we believe are at play in our economy do not exist in this “open source” environment. Supply and demand, profit and loss, investment and return, carrots and sticks, competition, survival of the fittest, rugged individualism—all things this great nation have been built upon—have absolutely nothing to do with the design or delivery of Linux, WordPress, or Wikipedia. Facts we might be willing to ignore if these products were not among the most innovative and disruptive in the world.

So the questions I’d like to ask are: if not competition and profit, beyond cooperation and collaboration, what are the rules these new systems are built upon, and are they at all relevant to our world? Can we learn anything from them in order to improve our families, schools, and day-to-day operation of our businesses?

According to Dan Pink in, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” there are three pillars that support high levels of innovation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Perhaps the quickest way to explain these powerful concepts is to offer a few quotes from Pink’s book. As you read them, consider what you know about Linux, Apache, WordPress, Wikipedia, or any other open-source product or service you are aware of. Reflect on their cost and how much of each you may include your own day-to-day life.

Autonomy: “The ultimate freedom for creative groups is the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Some skeptics insist that innovation is expensive. In the long run, innovation is cheap. Mediocrity is expensive—and autonomy can be the antidote.” — Tom Kelly, General Manager of IDEO.

Mastery: “The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences or business.” –Teresa Amabile, Harvard University professor.

Purpose: “I believe . . . a new form of capitalism is emerging. More stakeholders want their business to have a purpose bigger than their product.” — Mats Lederhousen, former McDonald’s executive.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose: invaluable concepts that, when embraced, change everything. So go ahead and get in on the ground floor. Considering the cost, you’ve got absolutely nothing to lose—except maybe some mediocrity.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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Mark Twain’s case for autonomy

tom_sawyerTom Sawyer looked at the 810 square feet of Aunt Polly’s fence he had been assigned to whitewash and, “Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden,” writes Mark Twain. Tom looked down at the bucket of paint and then up the street to see none other than his good friend Ben sauntering up the sidewalk.

Tom dipped the brush in the paint and began—enthusiastically. When his friend approached, to ask what he was doing, Tom almost ignored him. This triggered Ben’s curiosity. When Ben asked if he might try, Tom told him no. It wasn’t until Ben bribed Tom with an apple that Tom reluctantly relinquished his brush and let Ben have a turn at painting the fence.

It wasn’t long before Tom had a long line of friends begging for the opportunity to paint the fence. Twain writes, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Why did Tom’s friends want to paint his fence, while Tom, himself was loath to? The secret lies in a concept called, Autonomy. While Tom was assigned to the task, his friends chose it of their own free will.

Twain continues, “There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a passenger line, in the summer, because the privilege cost them considerable money,” Twain writes. “But if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and they would resign.”

As I wrote last week, it isn’t only Twain who understands the counter-intuitive nature of external motivation. Scientists have long known the negative effects of carrot and stick tactics–such as rewards and incentives–for work related performance. Decades of psychological study bear out the fact that rewards often decrease both motivation and performance.

Why? To be clear, we need to understand that it isn’t the rewards themselves that are the trouble. It’s the expectation of the reward for performance. It’s only contingent rewards—“if-then” rewards—that are the problem. The reason? The reward removes autonomy or a sense of control. Ownership. Like the gentlemen driving the carriages for money instead of fun, the reward creates a situation in which the drivers are no longer in full control. This loss of control saps motivation.

New scientific discoveries however, are often controversial. And this continues to be the case when it comes to motivation. After all, these findings fly directly in the face of what many consider common sense in most companies and schools. This new information was so counter-intuitive that in 1999, Edward Deci, Professor of Psychology in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, was called upon to analyze nearly three decades of research on the subject of motivation in order to determine if this was really true. Do “if-then” rewards really harm long-term performance?

“Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation,” he writes. “When institutions—families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams, for example—focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do so at the risk of considerable long term damage.”

In his bestselling book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink hammers the point home for both children and adults when he writes:

“Try to encourage a kid to learn math by paying her . . . and she’ll become more diligent in the short term but loose interest in math in the long term. Take an industrial designer who loves his work and try to get him to do better by making his pay continent on a hit product—and he’ll . . . become less interested in his job in the long term.”

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science,” Pink continues. “And also one of the most ignored.”

I know old habits and ideas die hard, but what’s more important: being right or being successful? Parents, teachers, managers, and employers–I ask you only this: Are you going to hang on to old beliefs about how best to motivate? Or are you going to get that fence painted?

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

Why incentives and rewards don’t work

5437288053_624c075aa3_mLet’s talk about incentives. We hear about incentives all the time—especially lately as we try to get the economy going again. We worry about tax incentives. We wonder about the best way to incentivize people to work, or spend money, or save money, or do more work, or better work, or homework.

Being good capitalists, we all know that incentives are great for stimulating all kinds of behavior in the direction that we desire. But are carrots and sticks really effective? And if so, how many carrots are required? Actually, scientists figured this out a long time ago. And I think the answer might surprise you. It surprised me.

But before we get to that, as is my custom, I’d like to share with you a puzzle.

Consider the following problem devised by psychologist Karl Dunker in the 1930’s. It’s called the “candle problem,” and is used for a wide variety of psychological experiments. Imagine sitting at a table when a researcher brings in the following items: a candle, a box full of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. The problem you are assigned is to attach the candle to the wall in a way that prevents the wax from dripping on the table.

Before reading on, think for a moment how you might accomplish this. Many people start by trying to tack the candle to the wall, or lighting a match and melting some wax before attempting to stick it to the wall. Neither works. Eventually, most people stumble upon the solution, which is to empty the box of tacks, tack the box to the wall, and then set the candle in it. The key is in being able to creatively break free from the idea that the box only has one function: to hold the tacks. This block in imagination is called “functional fixedness.”

You’re wondering what this has to do with incentives. So riddle me this: What happens when you give people this sort of problem with incentives for solving it quickly? That’s exactly what Sam Glucksberg, a Princeton University psychologist, wanted to find out. So he timed two groups of people and asked them to solve the candle problem. He told the first group (we’ll call them group A) that he was just timing them to get an idea of how long it normally took people to solve this kind of puzzle. We’re just establishing a benchmark, he told them. No pressure. The second group (group B), he offered incentives. Glucksberg told each participant that if his or her time was among the fastest twenty-five percent of everyone tested, he or she would receive five dollars. If the participant was the fastest, he or she would receive twenty dollars.

I should also mention that Glucksberg did this experiment in 1962. Five and twenty dollars is a nice incentive for many today. Adjusted for inflation, it was an even greater incentive back then. Not bad for a few minutes work.

So you want to know, with all that money on the line, how much faster group B performed? They didn’t. The incentivized group actually took an average of three and a half minutes longer to solve the problem. Three and a half minutes! The monetary reward actually slowed them down. And not by a little!

Experiments of this sort have been performed time and time again. And the results are clear. Traditional incentives don’t always work. And the fact is, they never work when the task requires any amount of creative problem solving. Why? Rewards narrow our focus—which, when a creative solution is wanted, is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I know what you’re thinking: Is it even possible to encourage people work more creatively to solve the complex problems of today’s workplace? It is. But you’ll have to read my next post to learn how. I seem to have lost my motivation to continue with this post.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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How to turn off a person’s thinking brain

1132365_fd5c479ec1_m“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” –Alfred North Whitehead

The following story about turkeys has been brought to you by the science of ethology—the study of animals in their natural habitat.

Here goes: Mother turkeys are loving and nurturing and protective. They warm and clean and feed and do all the things that good mothers do. But there is one very odd thing about turkey mothers. All of this mothering behavior is dependent upon a very specific trigger—the “cheep-cheep” sound of the chick. If a baby turkey makes this sound, all is well. If not, the mother turkey will ignore the chick. Sometimes she will even kill it.

Of course animal behaviorists found this fascinating, so they took a replica of a polecat, the natural enemy of the turkey, and had a little fun. First, they presented the stuffed polecat to mother turkey and, as expected, the turkey attacked it. Next, they put a little recorder inside the fake polecat. This recorder played, you guessed it, the same “cheep-cheep” sound that the chicks made. With the recorder on, the turkey accepted the polecat into her flock, treating it as one of her own. The scientists then turned off the recording and the turkey again attacked it. Scientists are great practical jokers.

So what have we learned? Mother turkeys are very silly. They will kill one of their own just because it doesn’t go “cheep-cheep,” and will nurture a natural enemy just because it does. The mother turkey’s maternal instincts are on autopilot, and the button or trigger for that autopilot is the “cheep-cheep” sound of her chicks.

These autopilot scenarios, called “fixed-action patterns,” are actually quite common in the animal world. All that’s needed to engage them is a trigger. Mating rituals, maternal instincts, migration, hibernation, and nesting are all fixed action patterns dependent on a trigger. Presenting a trigger is like pushing a button to start a computer a program.

Silly animals. We humans never do anything so ridiculous, right? Actually, we do it all the time. In fact, many people seek special training and build careers in order to trigger these automatic behaviors in us. These careers are in sales, or marketing, or politics. Others just have a talent for it. They know how to push our buttons, load up the programs, and suddenly we’re standing at the checkout counter with a fistful of flowers and a guilty feeling in our gut. He who knows the most buttons wins.

Consider the following story, brought to you by social psychologist Ellen Langer of Harvard. Langer and her team have become quite famous for what has come to be known as “The Copy Machine” study—an ingenious experiment created to measured students’ willingness to allow someone to cut in front of them in a line at a library copy machine.

“Excuse me,” she’d say. “I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Put this way, the students allowed her to skip ahead 60 percent of the time. Not bad, but Langer found she could do better stating it this way: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” Put this way, the students allowed the intrusion 94 percent of the time.

At first, Langer and her team thought the key persuasive trigger was the reason, “because I’m in a rush.” Just to be sure, they tried one more phrase–one without any real reason: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”

Because I need to make some copies? That’s just restating the obvious. Still, 93 percent complied with her request. The persuasive trigger was not the reason at all. The trigger was the word “because.” That’s it. Science of influence technique #1: Push button labeled “because” to run compliance program.

This experiment has been repeated and the results verified hundreds of times, proving that people can be triggered to run on autopilot almost as easily as mother turkeys. Which begs the question: Who’s pushing your buttons?


Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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