On Homework, Motivation, and MAR10!

Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle.


A few years ago, I had the chance to read Drive by the New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink. If you’re an educator, an administrator, a coach, a parent, or a leader in any sort of workplace — it’s really a fascinating look at the type of things that motivate human beings to do what they do. And believe it or not? Motivation rarely has much to do with how much we’re being paid or how famous we think our latest endeavor might make us in the long run.

As Pink explains, carrots and sticks are passe. People typically see right through cheap “incentive” programs, and most human motivation is typically instrinsic — which is to say that we do stuff simply because we WANT to do it, not because somebody out there is bribing us to get the job done. If you’d like a case study of how intrinisic motivation can topple even the most formidable of extrinsic motivators, take a look at this surprising case study about two competing encyclopedias, excerpted from the opening chapters of Drive:

Imagine it’s 1995. You sit down with an economist—an accomplished business school professor with a Ph.D. in economics. You say to her: “I’ve got a crystal ball here that can peer fifteen years into the future. I’d like to test your forecasting powers.” She’s skeptical, but she decides to humor you.


“I’m going to describe two new encyclopedias—one just out, the other to be launched in a few years. You have to predict which will be more successful in 2010.” “Bring it,” she says.


“The first encyclopedia comes from Microsoft. As you know, Microsoft is already a large and profitable company. And with this year’s introduction of Windows 95, it’s about to become an era-defining colossus. Microsoft will fund this encyclopedia. It will pay professional writers and editors to craft articles on thousands of topics. Well compensated managers will oversee the project to ensure it’s completed on budget and on time. Then Microsoft will sell the encyclopedia on CD-ROMs and later online.


“The second encyclopedia won’t come from a company. It will be created by tens of thousands of people who write and edit articles for fun. These hobbyists won’t need any special qualifications to participate. And nobody will be paid a dollar or a euro or a yen to write or edit articles. Participants will have to contribute their labor—sometimes twenty and thirty hours per week—for free. The encyclopedia itself, which will exist online, will also be free—no charge for anyone who wants to use it.


“Now,” you say to the economist, “think forward fifteen years. According to my crystal ball, in 2010, one of these encyclopedias will be the largest and most popular in the world and the other will be defunct. Which is which?”

Pencils ready, folks? It’s time for the final exam: Please raise your hand if you’re still using Encarta. Anyone? Anyone?


How about Wikipedia?


According to Drive, human motivation tends to derive from one of three very clear and very self-motivated places of origin. In order, they are:

  • Mastery – People do stuff because they want to see it done.
  • Autonomy – People work harder when they’re working on a task that they alone have personally selected.
  • Purpose – People tend to stick with a project if they see value in the challenge it presents.

Once people have to start playing out a cost/benefit analysis in their minds, they tend to grow disinterested and resentful towards any task that’s assigned their way. Boss tells you he’ll need you to stay a few extra hours after work, but that he’s happy to buy you dinner for your troubles? You groan, thinking about how nice it would have been to return home to your happy little home where you can have all of the food that’s waiting there for you in the comfort of your own PJs.

Teacher asks students to complete 20 problems on a take-home worksheet for homework in order to get their measly 10 points? Students can’t help but run the numbers in their heads. A few dinky points off of a grade in exchange for a few extra rounds of Fortnite on the daily? No big deal. Who needs those stupid points anyway, right? And before you know it, homework grades are in the toilet across the board.

Naturally, the well-meaning teacher then jacks up the value of the homework to count for EVEN MORE POINTS! And — surprise, surprise — completion rates magically go up! But wouldn’t you know it — end of unit test scores remain largely stagnant. And incidents of cheating are suddenly a daily topic of conversation in parent phone calls and the teacher’s lounge. Instead of tapping into intrinsic motivation, educators double down on an antiquated system of carrots and sticks: and even those kids who were once “honors” students start playing the game of school, copying homework from a friend on the bus while running the very low risk that their teacher might actually catch on to the fact that they didn’t do all the work by themselves.

When it’s only a completion grade, there’s no mastery.

When it’s mandatory that everyone complete the same assignment “because reasons?” There’s no autonomy.

And if you’ve already getting an “A” in the course without completing the homework? (Or if you’re already failing the course in spite of the fact that you complete homework diligently?) There’s no purpose.

Strangely  — while teachers gnash their teeth at all of these wasted hours that our “unmotivated” students are spending each day on Minecraft and Fortnite (and before them, Pokemon Go, Temple Run, Angry Birds, and countless others)? Video games have not-so-quietly spent the better part of four decades raking in billions of dollars in annual revenue by designing habit-forming products for the very same individuals who can’t possibly be bothered to crack open a textbook when they arrive home from school.

In a TED talk delivered in May 2018, American engineer, inventor and YouTube personality Mark Rober talks about what he calls “The Super Mario Effect,” and explains how video games can actually trick a person’s brain into learning a heck of a lot. In honor of MAR10 Day (get it?) — I thought that it was the perfect story to share in today’s blog entry.

Food for thought, right?

So what if our classrooms could tap into intrinsic motivation? What changes could we make in our education systems to provide a video game-like experience where players own brains tricked themselves into learning more? Like any good game, the key to a truly engaging classroom is to have fun while still playing it S.A.F.E, by crafting every high-energy lesson in a way that it delivers:

  • Specific
  • Actionable
  • Feedback
  • Expediently

And that, my friends, is the goal of an #EDrenaline Rush.

Happy MAR10 Day.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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