Motivation Madness: Dismantling Daniel Pink’s Misapplied Ideas in Education

Teachers are increasingly interested in student motivationbelieving it to be a panacea for boosting learning and reversing low academic achievement.

Yet the psychology of motivation is vast and dense, and most peoples’ vague understandings are largely shaped by a single 18 minute TED talk and its accompanying best-selling book. I’m referring to Daniel Pink’s Drive (2009)

Pink’s framework of intrinsic motivation was originally developed for adult workplaces, and pinpoints autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key ingredients for highly-motivated adult workers

However, for the past decade, Pink’s framework has been transplanted from workplaces and haphazardly adapted and interpreted in schools with children, resulting in calls to disrupt everything from core content to effective pedagogy – all in the name of fuzzy motivation.


What is the true role of motivation, specifically in student learning and education? How might teachers translate research on motivation to the classroom? And, what is at stake if educators continue mistakenly applying Pink’s model of motivation for adult workers to young students?

A Wild and Wooly Free-For-All

Like many viral myths and misconceptions in education, flimsy claims about student motivation have gone largely unquestioned, rapidly spread via word-of-mouth and veiled in aspiration and intuitive ease. In Daniel Pink’s world, boosting student motivation is solved by simply increasing autonomy, mastery, and purpose. While these keywords have specific meanings in research, they also easily lend themselves to confusion and distortion in practice.

In a 2014 interview with ASCD, Pink demonstrates just how cavalier he is in stretching his ideas of workplace motivation and personal autonomy to students in classrooms.

“If we really want engagement rather than compliance, we have to increase the degree of autonomy that people have over what they do; over how, when, and where they do it; and over whom they do it with…what it means in terms of students is giving them some discretion over what they study, which projects they do, what they read, or when or how they do their work.

Pink attempts to buffer critics by saying this wouldn’t be a “wild and wooly free-for-all,” but to any teacher who has spent a day in a classroom, it is no small task to just increase individual autonomy to allow for individual choice in curricula, readings, and due dates.

In fact, this emphasis on autonomy represents a complete overhaul and fragmentation of classrooms with little more than inferential notions from a book on workplace motivation. But it doesn’t stop there.

Larry Ferlazzo’s “Strategies for Helping Students Motivate Themselves” riffs on Pink’s framework for adult workers and states that key to improving students’ intrinsic motivation is increasing student “autonomy, competence, relatedness, and relevance.” Sound familiar?

In his version of competence, Ferlazzo veers away from any notion of mastery or expertise through practice, and instead emphasizes the importance of giving feedback to foster growth mindset in students.

“Teachers might consider a strategy called “plussing” that is used by Pixar animation studios with great successThe point, he said, is to build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language…“and” and “what if” could easily become often-used words in an educator’s vocabulary!”

Ferlazzo’s interpretation of competence makes no mention of the depth of instruction, amount and quality of practice, foundation of background knowledge, or curriculum cohesion. Basically, mastery and competence are reduced to a mindset that can be changed with simple phrases. 

While misinterpretations of Pink’s book and TED talk in classrooms are seductive, it’s time now to pause and identify some key assumptions:

  • Providing autonomy to employees is analogous to giving autonomy to students (e.g. Google’s Genius Hour is rampant)
  • Purpose can only be achieved through individual choice
  • Mastery and competence are largely a mindset

Pink’s framework of mastery, autonomy, and purpose is simply not sufficient or detailed enough to explain what students truly experience while learning in a classroom. We need a better, more nuanced model grounded in student learning, not workplace productivity.

Cognitions and Emotions

While Pink and Ferlazzo’s interpretations are misapplied, they do at least raise important questions about motivation in the classroom.

In “The Crucial Role of Motivation and Emotion in the Classroom,” Monique Boekaerts (2010) argues that motivation and emotion are not fully appreciated or given enough thought in many theories of learning. Boekaerts has written over 250 scientific articles and several books on motivation, self regulation, and emotion.

“Motivation and emotion are essential to education because…they ensure that students acquire new knowledge and skills in a meaningful way…unless the students’ cognitions and emotions about learning are adequately factored in, these models do not represent well the dynamics of the learning process.”

In her model, Boekaerts (2010) emphasizes the power of cognitions and emotions which continually impact information processing and should be understood by teachers.

  • Cognitions: These include motivational beliefs and opinions about the self within a domain or subject (e.g. how successful I believe I will be in mathematics). Cognitions encompass self-efficacy, outcome expectations, goal orientation, value judgement, and attribution of success and failure. These motivational beliefs, or cognitions, impact the choices students make and the investment they have in the task at hand.
  • Emotions: Emotions include the variety of affective processes (feelings, moods, affects, and well-being) that arise while learning. Emotions serve two purposes in learning – to detect if an activity is valuable or threatening (arousal), and to prepare for and regulate physiological responses to the emotional arousal (e.g. increased heart rate, shallow breathing, clammy hands).

Whenever learners encounter a new learning task, Boekaerts (2010) explains how cognitions and their associated emotions are activated and impact how information is processed in working memory. Boekaerts identifies three typical stages learners go through while interacting with a learning task. Crucially, this model recognizes the importance of domain-specific knowledge. 

  1. Learners observe specific features of the task and its educational context
  2. Learners activate domain-specific knowledge and meta-cognitive strategies
  3. Learners activate motivational beliefs and regulation strategies

At this point, students begin to unconsciously ask many questions: “Is this valuable for my learning; can I complete this successfully; how committed am I to completing this; if I don’t get this right at first should I give up or keep trying; why did I get this right/wrong? 

These questions and resulting beliefs about the learning self make up appraisals, or task-specific motivational beliefs. These appraisals are vital to self-regulation and commitment to a learning task.

Most students are not even remotely aware of the power of these unconscious motivational beliefs, and often the slightest change in external or internal conditions can alter an appraisal and trigger negative emotions that interfere with learning. Boekaerts (2010) warns that experiencing failure despite trying can be particularly harmful when learning new tasks, and that teachers should do their best to pitch learning tasks just above current levels of competence and to provide non-threatening feedback. Worked examples come to mind immediately.

This brief overview of the role of motivation and emotion in the classroom highlights how efforts to improve motivation merely using “autonomy” or “purpose” (choice) when students lack domain-specific knowledge will not improve learning. With this more detailed model of the role of motivation and emotion in the classroom, some key principles and guidance around student motivation can be derived.

Key Principles of Motivation in Education

What should teachers use to guide them in better encouraging motivation in classrooms? A good place to start is the American Psychological Association’s Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning (2015). Of the 20 principles, four specifically address motivation. I’ll quote each, and briefly paraphrase how they might be most effectively implemented in classrooms. 

1. Students tend to enjoy learning and to do better when they are more intrinsically
rather than extrinsically motivated to achieve. 

Intrinsically-motivated students are found to attend more closely to instruction, organize new information more effectively, and relate new information to what they already know. As such, teachers should seek to promote a love of learning for its own, intrinsic sake.

Yet too many educators have adopted a polarized, simplistic view that intrinsic = good, extrinsic = bad. The truth is that both are needed, at specific times in the learning process. This quote from the APA report captures the uses of extrinsic motivation.

“A substantial body of experimental research studies shows that extrinsic motivation, when properly used, is very important to producing positive educational outcomes. Research also shows that students develop academic competence when they do tasks repeatedly in carefully constructed ways so that the basic skills become automatic. As more basic skills become automatic, the tasks require less effort and are more enjoyable.”

As such, teachers can use encouragement, praise, and even rewards (extrinsic motivators) in the early stages while students develop more basic skills. Then, as students develop mastery, extrinsic motivators can be removed as complex tasks become less effortful and more enjoyable, resulting in learning becoming its own intrinsic reward.

In terms of autonomy, the APA report emphasizes the role of framing and communication. “Much of the perception of control can be managed by the way in which a task is communicated to students.” Instead of providing individual students full discretion over readings, assignments, and due dates as Pink and Ferlazzo recommend, simply provide a few pre-selected choices and work towards whole-group consensus. Furthermore, the deliberate use of gradual release of responsibility (I Do, We Do, You Do) effectively incorporates opportunities for autonomy and independent learning.

2. Students persist in the face of challenging tasks and process information more deeply when they adopt mastery goals rather than performance goals.

Students tend to engage in learning in two ways. A mastery approach involves the desire to learn as much as possible about a topic, whereas a performance approach is driven by outperforming others. Generally speaking, mastery goals should be encouraged over performance goals in classrooms.

Implementation tips include avoiding comments about intelligence or social comparisons, giving praise tied to specific actions, and emphasizing effort and progress. Teachers might also consider the deliberate and careful use of cooperative learning with group goals tied to individual accountability (e.g. a quiz that averages the learning of all group members). The APA writes that “cooperation is one of the best ways to promote a mastery goal orientation.”

3. Teachers’ expectations about their students affect students’ opportunities to learn, their motivation, and their learning outcomes.

How teachers view their students cannot be overstated. “If faulty expectations are communicated to a student (whether verbally or nonverbally), that student may begin to perform in ways that confirm the teacher’s original expectation.” When teachers assume that whole groups of students can’t read at-or-beyond grade level, or can’t think deeply about complex topics, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nothing highlights the need for higher expectations for all students in the U.S. than the recent TNTP report The Opportunity Myth. “Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.” In short, set high expectations and relentlessly scaffold students to meet them.

4. Setting goals that are short term (proximal), specific, and moderately challenging enhances motivation more than establishing goals that are long term (distal), general, and overly challenging.

When explicitly teaching students to set goals, it’s important to know that short-term goals tend to be more motivating than long-term goals. This is largely because it is easier to monitor and judge progress towards specific, proximal goals. Until middle adolescence, students are also not able to think very concretely about the future.

Teachers should help students keep a written record of goal progress. Most importantly, teachers should encourage intermediate risk taking – this is when students are well-calibrated and set goals that are not too high or too low. The APA report states this is “one of the most important characteristics of achievement-oriented individuals.”

Motivation….It’s Complex

Creating classrooms that properly take into account student motivation is vital, but we cannot simplify the rich complexity to three buzz words – “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” These words have been broadly interpreted and brazenly used to rationalize all sorts of questionable educational practices.

To pretend Daniel Pink’s framework for adult workers has a place in the domain of education is absurd. Unfortunately, it has led to a toxic notion that in order to be intrinsically motivated, students must make self-centered choices all day in school. Promising research on student motivation exists, and we should embrace the complexity rather than latching onto quick-fixes and simplistic frameworks.

Put Simply
  • Motivation and mastery are intertwined, but require more than a growth mindset – practice, feedback, and genuine levels of competence are a necessary foundation to self-efficacy. The APA report states “just as in sports, students improve their reading, writing, and mathematics skills when they do these activities repeatedly with teacher guidance and feedback, gradually progressing from less complex tasks to more difficult ones.”
  • Rather than trying to individually personalize curricula, due dates, and assignments (a recipe for teacher exhaustion and burn-out), use framing to create greater perception of autonomy.
  • Allow students opportunities to find purpose in their learning by encouraging a mastery approach to learning in combination with concrete, short-term goals that can be easily monitored and readjusted.
Azzam, A. (2019). Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink – Educational Leadership. LINK
Boekaerts, M. (2010). The crucial role of motivation and emotion in classroom learning. The nature of learning: Using research to inspire practice, 91-111.
Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning. American Psychological Association.

6 thoughts on “Motivation Madness: Dismantling Daniel Pink’s Misapplied Ideas in Education

  1. Your summary of the APA’s principles is well done and I’ll probably pass that along to some colleagues. In my experience the APA’s approach is how many teachers think about and encourage student motivation. I think you take a very simplistic, social media-ready view that teachers simply watch Pink’s TED Talk and then walk into the classroom and say, ‘Have at it, kids’. This seems to be your overarching view of ‘progressive’ (dirty word!) teachers; they relinquish all control of teaching and learning because they read something about Dewey.

    You make many good points in your writing that teachers can reflect on. I just wonder why you have such a dim view of other teachers.


    1. I get this often – that I am teacher bashing…

      My perspective is not that teachers are dim – it is that we are, by and large, poorly trained (mine and countless others’ experience, particularly in re: to literacy and cognitive psychology) and then subjected to wave upon wave of misinformation.

      You’d also be surprised at how often I’ve heard this particular TED talk referenced in professional education settings. I’m sure I’m not alone.


    2. Last bit – I consider myself extremely progressive as an educator, just not in the mold of what, say, Heinemann and other publishers might depict. I teach everything with a critical lens, and emphasize interaction and discussion in my classroom.


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