Motivation, a Collective Goal for the Architect and Educator


Daniel Pink, in his popular TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation,” outlines the collected evidence on motivation and performance. His compelling argument effectively condemns the way we structure the majority of our businesses, and it could be argued our educational environments as well. For, he emphatically states, as if issuing an indictment, “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

Incentives, those popular extrinsic motivators, as he explains, sharpen our focus when we are approaching 20th century tasks. Tasks born out of the industrial era, those that are mechanistic and repetitive are improved when married to the offer of a cash bonus, for example. However, the same incentive has been proven to dull creativity and decrease productivity and performance when applied to cognitively engaging tasks, those creative, problem-based endeavors which are so typical to 21st century working and learning.

Daniel Pink is certainly not alone in his conclusions that the systems designed to drive outcomes are actually opposed to them. The old system of “carrots and sticks” has been largely debunked, and leading authors from Stephen Covey to Jim Collins have surveyed the evidence and reached the conclusion that our organizations are largely setup based on history and not based on reality.  

Our educational environments are no different. After all, Alfie Kohn’s circa 1993 “Punished by Rewards” became a standout for its claims that extrinsic motivators are not the most effective solution in classrooms. In an interview published in the Harvard Education Letter in 1994, Kohn explains it quite simply, “Rewards kill creativity.”  Repeated studies have evidenced: when extrinsic motivators are paired with tasks requiring creativity, poorer performance ensues. He adds, “If the question is ‘Do rewards motivate students?’ The answer is ‘Absolutely. They motivate students to get rewards.’ And that’s typically at the expense of creativity.” Kohn goes on to explain in much the same terms as Pink, when the reward becomes the focus, the risk associated with a creative solution is quickly dismissed, not out of laziness, but in an attempt to protect the possibility of payoff. 

Pink posits that the effective motivators for the type of work which most of us find ourselves engaged in, are autonomy, mastery and purpose. People seek the ability to do meaningful work well, and to have a voice in determining the shape the task takes. 

Kohns’ motivators for students are quite similar: collaboration, content, which closely aligns with Pink’s purpose, and choice, which closely aligns with Pink’s autonomy.

It is important to discuss student motivation because as many have remarked, there is no education without it. Research by the Gates Foundation discussed the factors influencing dropout rates. The students, as it turns out, were academically capable.  The decision to leave school was, as it was described, the result of a “long-term process of disengagement.” For the most part our students arrive motivated, and many begin a downward spiral. Retired U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquett wrote about a similar downward spiral in his book “Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders.” He describes the leader-follower model of corporate culture as an outdated process of “deliberate disengagement” that ultimately disappoints both leaders and followers and creates disengaged, dissatisfied, and uncommitted employees. There is a startling similarity between that description and the one regarding the students who dropped out. Like Pink, Marquett describes the leader-follower model as idealized to the industrial era, “optimized for extracting physical work from humans,” and for that purpose quite successful. However, once again, it is noted as deeply insufficient when the employees, or students in our case, are expected to be thoughtful, contributing, engaged and capable of leading themselves. Ken Robinson wrote, “public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism, they were created in the image of industrialism,” and it would seem that idea is manifested in the motivational or rather organizational systems as well as the content delivery systems.

Current educational philosophy has been focused on understanding the role of intrinsic motivation in student success. Paul Tough has synthesized much of the recent research in his latest books, “How Children Succeed” and “Helping Children Succeed.”  His findings echo the case laid out in the business writings discussed above.  Motivation, the foundation of all learning, appears tremendously consistent regardless of age. Tough cites one study showing reduction in motivation among even preschoolers based on the reward system leveraged. He describes the impact of gradual disengagement in such similar terms; one cannot help but make the comparison to Marquett’s crew.

And just like Pink and others found, the key to student motivation according to Tough’s survey of recent research is autonomy, competence and relatedness.  Essentially students need to feel safe and secure, with a deep sense of belonging, believing they are a “welcome and valued part of a particular learning environment.” They must also be engaged in important work, “challenging, rigorous and deep,” where they can own their successes. As Tough describes, when a student is permitted to wrestle through challenging content, they are also able to experience “those much-sought after … feelings of competence and autonomy: This wasn’t easy but I did it.”  And teachers must “maximize a sense of choice and volitional engagement,” often expressed through child-driven or student-centered learning. 

Of course, the question for us as designers is, does this have an architectural response? The architectural solution has no power to create pedagogy. It cannot, in and of itself, counteract prevailing philosophies or overcome counterproductive values. 

It can, however, provide a physical support to the educational philosophy at play. It can communicate to students the value systems that are in place. It can help to guide the behavior within its walls, and cue inhabitants to expectations. It can provide autonomy.  In fact, it does all of these things. We are tied to our environments in ways we have yet to understand, and they serve effectively as the physical representations of our paradigms themselves. 

Based on Tough’s research, as outlined in “Helping Children Succeed,” it’s important that students feel safe and secure. They cannot focus on the task until they receive the message: “You’re safe. Life is going to be fine. Let down your guard. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises.” And while this message truly needs to be generated early and preferably at home, it should be reinforced in the school setting. 

We specifically designed Sarah Smith Elementary to be warm and welcoming. The materials were carefully chosen to reflect those used in the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The stone established a sense of familiarity and brought with it the associations of home. Although a two story building, the stone material stops just above the first story and the second story are composed primarily of glazing. This serves to break down the façade reducing the perception of the overall scale.  Students enter the building after processing along a covered walk with a gently pitched roof, again harkening back to the familiar, and eroding the boundary between exterior and interior, thus easing the transition.  

Tough also addresses the importance of fostering the sense of belonging, and a feeling of competency. The environment can be crafted to communicate expectations, which can support student motivation. When students understand what is expected, they can feel confident. 

Even the corridors can be programmed to support learning. The bench outside became a space for students to study or for a teacher and student to work one on one.  The color acts to create a perceived boundary making the space feel both more purposeful and more personal that it would otherwise. The design cues the user that this space is different from the corridor itself, and it is in turn used more appropriately. 

The addition of a breakout space works too much the same. The area tucked inside the blue walls has a reduced scale, and a discussion table with specialty lighting. The effect is to create an environment altogether distinguished from the surrounding desks and uniquely suited to the desired deep-dive discussions. Once again, the design serves to cue the user, making them feel more comfortable engaging.  

Providing a variety of learning environments is often discussed because it supports a variety of learning activities. Reconfigurable furniture and writeable surfaces are wonderful for achieving this purpose. However, based on our understanding of student motivation, it is important that we also accommodate student choice. Our students need to feel ownership over their learning environment. This simple choice can have a large impact on student motivation. 

Many schools are embracing this philosophy, eroding the traditional setup and allowing students more control over their learning. Students engaged in project-based learning are finding opportunities to tinker and investigate in a variety of environments each designed with a unique character. Modeled after a more collegiate environment, students are given high-levels of autonomy consistent with the research on increasing student motivation. 

Dan Pink said, “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” And while that may often be true in education as well, we believe it is the designer’s responsibility to minimize the gap. Tough acknowledges that the very factors making it critical to intrinsically motivate our students are the ones that create the most pull in the opposite direction, inciting tighter behavioral controls, and less positive relationships, and of course, architecture will often reflect that temptation.  However, many schools are embracing a student-centered model, and it is important that educators and architects work closely together. Ultimately, our school buildings are clear manifestations of our most ardently-held philosophies regarding education, and that is their power — the power to communicate to children how deeply they are valued, and how important their work is, and to say, as Tough so eloquently put it, “You’re safe. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises.”   

Megan Fagge is a Certified Teacher and Architect at Cooper Carry’s K-12 Education Studio.

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