Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Autonomy, mastery and purpose
Child struggling in school

It’s been over 10 years since Daniel Pink’s book Drive got us all thinking about the role of autonomy, mastery and purpose in fostering intrinsic motivation. Though the buzz around his book has died down, the importance of autonomy, mastery and purpose continue to resonate with me, both in the classroom and beyond. While the book addresses what these principles look like in the workplace, I have certainly seen the value of putting these principles to work in the classroom.

One of the best ways to engage students in learning is to tap into their sense of agency or autonomy. Giving students choices about what and how they learn helps them to take ownership of their learning. When students have a voice in how learning is happens and how they demonstrate their learning, they know why they are doing what they are doing and require less extrinsic motivation to persist.

Connecting the learning to students’ sense of purpose is another important part of engaging students in meaningful learning. When the learning is connected to students’ interests, they are more motivated. The connection to students’ sense of purpose can be with what they are learning, or how they are learning it. This is especially true for adolescents who tend to be very motivated by interaction with their peers. Collaborative projects and learning experiences can be very engaging, regardless of the topic.

Giving students autonomy and connecting teaching and learning to their sense of purpose does not mean that students have the final say in what happens in the classroom. By articulating specific learning goals and setting high standards, teachers can tap into students’ sense of mastery. Likewise, by helping students to set appropriately challenging goals and recognize their progress towards those goals, teachers can engage students in working towards the learning objectives set out in the curriculum.

Cultivating intrinsic motivation in our students supports their learning, but is also an important part of helping them to become independent adults. When students develop the ability to set their own goals and summon the motivation to pursue them, they will grow into active, independent citizens who are ready to chart their course in the world.



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