Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

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Gerard Greally

Gerard is an Irish primary school & technology teacher based in Madrid, Spain. After training in London, he sought brighter skies and moved to an International school where he is ICT teacher to year 4, 5 and 6 students in an iPad one-to-one environment. Gerard...
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Is this the change in direction education needs?

Daniel Pink is ‘one of the world’s leading business thinkers’ and author of best-selling books about work, management and behavioural science.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us he discusses how three areas can increase productivity, satisfaction and engagement: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Drive is described as a ‘paradigm-shattering book’ and we are told to ‘forget everything you thought you knew about how to motivate people – at work, at school, at home. It is wrong.’

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) published an animated video based on Dan Pink’s speech at the RSA about what motivates us as human beings:


This is the desire to be self-directed.

We live in an age of autonomous vehicles, but not teachers. Certain education systems (but not all) do not trust their teachers to give them autonomy. In my opinion, people become teachers with a desire to contribute to a better future.

With prescriptive curricula and tunnel-visioned assessment, how can teachers fit in their own expertise and ‘personalised learning’? As teachers we have become so overburdened by regular testing and prescriptive objectives that we must deliver personality-less, chapter-ticking drivel.

Providing teachers with less specific learning objectives would allow children to self-direct their own learning more. I have even heard teachers throw away ideas from a KWL chart, as it didn’t fit in with the ‘prescribed learning journey’ and time restrictions already in place.

If you want engagement: self-direction is better, for students and educators. Giving teachers undiluted autonomy would allow teachers to teach what they are passionate about for a small proportion of their contact time; increasing students learning experience and taking advantage of the teachers increased interest and knowledge.


This is the human urge to get better at things.

It’s good to aim for better and want to improve. It’s satisfying! As teachers we want the best for our students but often find our hands tied. Look at the teaching community on Twitter; teachers, leadership and training providers discuss emerging advances and ways to improve practice. Advocates from all around the world come together weekly to discuss and attempt to improve the learning experience of students far-and-wide. They are not being paid for this, they do it because they want to be better at what they do.

With more autonomy we as teachers could challenge ourselves and our students to push learning to otherwise unexplored territory. Increasing our mastery is human instinct, and something that teachers as of now are being starved of.

It makes sense that we as teachers want to contribute. I don’t know a single teacher who decided on this profession to become rich, however with the litany of red-tape and hoops to jump through this value is lost in a plethora of paperwork.


This is the drive to keep going.

We as teachers have a ‘Transcendent Purpose’, as described by Pink. We become educators to allow us to help make the broader world a better place and to help others, but often this fire is quenched and our passion bottled up and shelved.

How can we possibly engage learners with a prescribed, mass-produced, repetitive indoctrination? Where is the room for creativity?

Companies that are flourishing are animated by purpose. And we as educators have a very purposeful task. We teach to shape a better future and we need to encourage all types of learners to solve all different types of problems, not just people who can prepare for an exam and pass.

People or Workhorses?

The importance of workplace motivation has also been highlighted by another trio ‘Mastery, Membership and Meaning’ by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Moss Kanter, goes into more detail about the idea of teachers, as professionals bringing outside interests to work, and moving on from superficial conformity, striking a strong connection with the words of Pink.

It seems to me if we were to start treating teachers like people and not work-horses we could move toward a paradigm that makes us all better off and the world a little bit better! If we were to begin to steer in the direction of autonomy on the teacher’s part, maybe this renewed motivation could put our ship back on course.

4 thoughts on “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

  1. I am a school evaluator in northern Nigeria. I finds Gerrard’s view closer to my experience as an artist.

  2. So true…great video…I am going to implement this regardless of what people think because I think the kids will love it and who knows…they may even get more done

  3. Thank you for this inspiring piece. I found it a real comfort. I’m quitting my 6th form job because I find it totally stultifying. Autonomy? You must be joking. I’m horrified to learn, after a couple of interviews, that every other phase seems just as bad! I’m aware the new buzz thing is “securing outstanding outcomes for learners”. That makes me want to vomit. I teach a creative subject, but there’s no room for creative activities, just more drivel. I’m considering leaving the profession I thought I loved, very sad.

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