Thursday, April 28, 2011

Teaching a Commitment to Excellence

Can we teach students to commit themselves to excellence-to the pursuit of mastery?  When we celebrate and commend students who have committed themselves to excellence, does it increase the chance that they will continue to pursue mastery?
The characteristics of the work that we give students influence students’ level of engagement and the likelihood that students will commit themselves to excellence in completing the work.  In several other blog posts, I have reflected on how choice, affiliation, affirmation, and other design qualities increase engagement and encourage students to pursue mastery.  Clearly, a task can be intrinsically motivating.
Although we should provide students with intrinsically motivating work, providing the right kind of extrinsic motivation also plays an important role in teaching students to commit to excellence.  My previous blog post includes the text of remarks in which I commend students at the Virginia Odyssey of the Mind competition for their pursuit of mastery.

However, Dan Pink states us that extrinsic rewards can turn play into work.  He warns us about contingent rewards, what he refers to as if/then rewards-if you do this, then you get that.  He observes that if/then rewards can actually negatively affect motivation and narrow our thinking.  Nevertheless, regardless of whether you think we overemphasize grades, isn’t there still a role for extrinsic rewards that are not of the if-then type?
Shouldn’t we explicitly celebrate when students pursue mastery?  Shouldn’t we encourage students to take pride in their pursuit of excellence?  In addition to providing intrinsically motivating work, if our commendations contribute to students’ satisfaction with the pursuit of mastery, then we are teaching students to commit themselves to excellence.  Let’s look for opportunities in our classrooms, schools, and school districts to celebrate and commend students who have committed themselves to excellence.
How do you celebrate and commend students for pursuing mastery in your classroom, school, or school district?  How can we celebrate and commend students for committing themselves to excellence, while avoiding the pitfalls of which Dan Pink warns us?


  1. Excellent post Eric. I really appreciate the reminder that a commitment to high standards makes a huge difference...I learned this as a musician, but it is so easy to start believing the status quo is OK. I have a poster about "Deliberate Practice" in my office, which goes hand-in-glove with achieving excellence. Maybe it should be on the wall in front of me rather than at the side!

  2. Thanks. The concept of deliberate practice certainly is important!