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driveI’m going to admit – I’ve been a bit flummoxed lately. Perplexed. Bemused. Set back. I tussle with many of life’s questions, but one of the greatest is — How do I help my students achieve more?

As a 9-year teacher, I stand in front of the classroom with a wide variety of tools on my belt, but to  that I’m about to retire are the “carrot” and the “stick.” I’m doing this because these seem to be the only two tools used on me, as a public servant and proponent of education and our nation’s youth. I don’t feel like I deserve to be treated with these two things, and I don’t think my students do either.

Case in point: we are testing our students to death; we are practicing a model of stick-carrot-stick method of evaluating our students and our teachers; we are driving automation into the classroom and love of learning out. And it needs to stop.

Why, do you ask? The book Drive by Daniel Pink (@DanielPink) and the theory behind it shows that the carrot-and-stick model is outdated, as it has no implications on cognitive processes and development. These models work fine when it comes to physical and mechanical output, but are wholeheartedly wrong when it comes to educational assessment and the values we’re associating with it (see Tests, Standardized and Pay, Merit in the educational jargon dictionary). Better yet, first watch the video for “Drive.”

If you don’t have the 10 minutes to watch the video, relate to his theory in a Tweetable 140 characters (on page 203 of the book):

“Carrots & sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.”

Yet here we are. In 2014, with all the things around us: The world at our fingertips. More connected than ever. Using carrots and sticks in education like it’s the only ingredients to a successful achievement. Let’s examine how we each of them right now, and how they’re moving forward and impacting education:



Students are fed a meager dose of carrots. You do well (enough), the teachers leave you alone. You pass the state exam, the state leaves you alone. In most cases, you prove to blend into the crowd, that’s good enough. You move up another ladder on the rung towards graduation.

Teachers experience a similar diet. You seem to do a good job with what we’ve given you (students, curriculum, materials, time) – the administrators leave you alone. You work a few years in a tough school system until you can get enough experience to move to a dream one. Your students do well enough on the state exam, the state leaves you alone. In most cases, again, you blend into the crowd, that’s good enough. You move up another year on the pay scale and another year towards retirement. In some cases (districts and charter schools), that can be a financial reward (merit pay).



Students who stand out are punished. Choose your comment among the following:

  • “You’re intelligent, but you don’t do homework.
  • “You’re not responsible enough.
  • “You don’t listen.
  • “You always seem to get into fights.
  • “You miss to much school.
  • “You spend more time in the halls than in class.
  • “You know the principal on a first name basis – and that’s not a good thing.
  • “You didn’t take the state exam seriously enough.”

The sticks become animated and emerge like brooms in Fantasia. And they beat students down into self-conscious, depreciated, sad members of the school system. Occasionally, the stick works. The student emerges from the stick-beating like an unscathed animal in whack-a-mole. At worst, the sticks make them dropouts and future criminals.

Teachers’ experience with sticks is a much more recent phenomenon. Education professionals are battered by groups on all sides for failure to increase the scores of our students’ state exams. I mean, we’ve got to compete with the rest of the world in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Is there something wrong with America’s teachers that we cannot beat China?

We need to give them more to do. More state standards. More tests. More students. More paperwork. More assignments to grade. More hoops to jump through. Until the stick-beating becomes so great that the only place left to jump is out of the profession – whether on the teacher’s own accord or worse, by being pushed out.

But what if we followed Daniel Pink’s advice and built an education system built on foundations of autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Here’s how we can do that:


In the book and in the speech, Mr. Pink refers to Atlassian, an Australian company who give all their employees one day to be creative at work. They can work on whatever they want and with whomever they want; the only rule is they must share what they’ve produced within 24 hours. What they’ve found is that, in one day, these employees fixed broken codes, created new algorithms, improved current software, and even created new products. This one day of autonomy made the company much more profitable and the employees much more happy. Heck, Google – the most successful company of the 21st century – does this once a week.

And what if we empowered our students to do the same? Could you imagine how they – the audience – could improve our lessons?

The question I’ll beg to ask is, what if the public and our administrators started to trust the teachers and, instead of having PTO baked goods during Education Week, we got one day to work on whatever we wanted. Could you imagine the possibilities?


If the goal of education is to make better students, it seems silly that we’ve fallen so far from trusting our teachers to become masters of curriculum and classroom. To quote Mr. Pink, “we like to get better at stuff… because it’s fun, and getting better at stuff is satisfying.” We as teachers are raised to this on an exponential level. Why? Because as we become masters of our curriculum and classroom, our students become masters of their learning.

As the things for us to do mount up, what if we shot for pie-in-the-sky achievement in writing contests, math challenges, and the science fair? What if we made a game board based on American history that could be sold to a company? What if mastery and the exchange of ideas were the ideal?

To quote George Bernard Shaw, “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we share apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

Talk about creating a paradigm shift in education.


In Drive, Pink talks about when the purpose of companies becomes profit, unethical things happen. Similar things can be said about schools and standardized test achievement. I have to ask (and loudly) – WHAT IS AMERICAN EDUCATION’S PURPOSE? If we only care about students reaching a 75% on the state assessment, then fine. We’re doing a great job. But if we care about students as individuals, we are failing, and our current path will only cause us to perpetuate that failure. I would assume to believe that most of my students, their parents, politicians, community members, and fellow teachers would agree with the purpose I set for my classroom, which is, as follows:

To unearth an appreciation – and possibly even a love of – American history. To string together causes and effects that continue to connect our nation’s fabric, some that have been resolved but many more that remain unresolved. To assess primary sources and the roots of one’s opinion. To acknowledge and debate different points of view. To understand the basic rights of an American citizen, and more importantly how to exercise them. To learn the value of society and law, but also how to use one’s civil liberties to question and improve upon them.

I challenge you: find me a state assessment or bureaucracy that would do a better job of implementing this purpose in a classroom better than a teacher who was empowered with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Similarly, what if teachers were able to give purpose to their lessons by showing the broad application and derivation of it, rather than saying “we have to teach this because it’s on the test.” I see a lot less yawns in the classroom.

Pink closes his video by saying “If we start treating people like people – and not like horses – we have the potential to build organizations that not only make us a bit better off, but make the world a whole lot better.” That maxim can be applied across the board in education, and we’d all be the better for it.

Mr. Jake Miller is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, a 2017 NEA Global...

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