The Electric Educator: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Friday, September 4, 2009

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Ever since I visited Google for the Google Teacher Academy I have been mulling the idea of what Google calls "20% time." That is, time set aside from your normal duties to work on projects of your own choosing and liking. Fellow blogger Joel Zehring posted a video from TED in which Daniel Pink lays out the case for this same model. I would encourage you to watch and consider Pink's idea.

If you don't have 20 minutes to watch the whole talk, it boils down to the following:

Traditional business models are based on incentives. If you accomplish this, you will be rewarded with this. It's the old carrot and stick approach. According to the research which Pink cites, this approach works only for rote, manual tasks. It does not work for dynamic tasks that involve creative problem solving.

The model that does work involves autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Workers should be able to work freely toward a goal, they should be constantly striving to increase their proficiency in their core duties, and they should be working on something that transcends themselves.

These ideas fit in well with Maslow's Hierachy of needs. Productivity should increase as self-actualization occurs.

Now, back to education. How can this be applied to the classroom? Here's my idea. I have a smattering of grades 9-12 in my biology classes. Each spring the seniors head out on their "senior trip." They're gone for a week which presents a challenge for me as I plan my units. I've decided to give my remaining students "20% time" (or as Pink calls it, FedEx days). For one week they will be allowed to learn about a topic of their choosing. At the end of the week they must have created something of value to share with their classmates and the world.

This is a bold and potentially disastrous idea. Are the forces of autonomy, mastery, and purpose strong enough to motivate and mobilize freshmen?

I covet your ideas and thoughts before I enact this crazy idea of mine. I have until March to figure it all out!


  1. Interested to see how this works out; will you be giving them some guidelines as to what might be considered "valuable?" Good luck!

  2. I would love to know how this turns out! Do you think they will be motivated enough? I have been wishing for my own 20% time ever since I first saw that. Maybe bribing them with more 20% time if this one works well. . .

  3. Thanks for your comment. Motivation is one of my concerns. As you probably know, in any given group of students there are some that are highly motivated, those that require external forces to motivate them (like me failing them!) and those that don't seem to care at all. My hope is that the guidelines for the 20% time will be loose enough to allow each student to do something that is of personal interest.

  4. I think you could ask the students how to design the plan for the 20% time. You might simply come up with very clear criteria for the "product".
    something must take no longer that 6 minutes, pose a question that the demo will answer, ( How might we..?) have a visual component, engage the group in some interactive process and gather further data to test your hypoothesis.

  5. Recently say Pink's talk when it was replayed at TEDx Austin. As a 9th grade bio teacher I was intrigued by these ideas and wondered how they would work. Googling the words: Autonomy, mastery and purpose led me to here. How did that experiment work out for you.

  6. Just a note FEDEX day's is what an Australian company atlassian does a few times a year where employees have 24 hours to come up with something and then have to present it. It is not another term for Google's 20% flextime.

  7. Very interesting. Thanks for thinking out loud. I think allowing students to learn about what interests them is vital. That FedEx day provides that and accountability for that learning.

    - @newfirewithin

  8. Thanks for the comment, Justin. You can check out my reflection on the FedEx project here:


Thanks for contributing to my blog. I enjoy being a part of the conversation and do my best to respond to comments and questions that are posted.