Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why Teach? Teacher Motivation and ED 2.0

We think about teaching primarily as school teaching. This can make it hard to understand why teachers would want to contribute voluntarily to ED 2.0 projects. But when we broaden our view of teaching we unlock this mystery.

School Teaching and Alienated Labor

A school is a formal organization structured along the traditional hierarchical framework of the firm. Whether public or private, a school involves the coordination of many teachers and staff members in order to get a job done.

Nominally this job is to deliver the curriculum, to cover the materials, to facilitate the achievement of learning goals. But as an organization, the job includes keeping the organization running, preventing conflicts from flaring into violence, protecting against law suits, and many other goals.

The hierarchical ordering of the school structure is needed in order to retain the flow of communications down from higher levels about what is to be done, and up from lower levels that the top-down requirements are being met.

Teachers have some authority to structure their classrooms and plan lessons, but they are constrained, often severely, by decisions made at higher levels. Often these constraints box teachers in; they feel hamstrung to act in knowing, creative and practically effective ways because they are forced to follow miseducative mandates. The best contemporary example is NCLB, which is reducing teaching to test prep. One recent Education Week article notes that 40% of teachers are now "disheartened". Another from Ed Week reports that top-down dictates, robbing them of professional autonomy, affect them even more negatively than poor working conditions or poorly prepared students.

Teaching is thus a prime example of what Karl Marx called "alienated labor". Teachers do their jobs even as their labor furthers ends contrary to their own own. In teaching, they nullify themselves as educators. Why do they do it? They need the money.

Teacher Motivations and ED 2.0

Teachers working in schools may do it mostly because they need the money. But there is more to the story of why teachers teach.

Research shows that past a certain rather low point, more money does not make humans happier, and past another point, more money actually contributes to unhappiness. Teachers and other workers need enough money to live decent, respectable lives, and to feel they are being compensated fairly. Beyond this, money does not drive them, or most of the rest of us, very much.

Four other motivations become dominant as soon as we have established a financial basis for a dignified life, and play important roles even earlier.

1. The first is self-development, the need to continue to build upon our knowledge and skills, to get better at what we do, to actualize our human potentialities. Because the philosopher Aristotle made such a big deal about this, this is sometimes called the Aristotelian Principle.

2. The second is creativity or originality. One of the deepest human pleasures is to create, to see something beautiful or elegant come to life through our own efforts. The great psychologist Ernst Schachtel called the pleasure arising from our spontaneous self-activity "activity affect". Great teachers love to organize their classrooms as elegant spaces for learning and their lessons and units as aesthetic as well as practical achievements. Picasso said that he loved making art so much that he could not conceive of a life for himself that did not consist in making art most hours of every single day. Let's call this the "Picasso Principle".

3. The third is self-assertion or ego. All of us want to matter, want that our lives "make a difference". "Kilroy was here" says it all. The kid carving his initials on a tree says "I exist". This is an expression of the desire for recognition. The artist signing a picture, the author publishing a book, the teacher co-authoring a curriculum guide or textbook, is acting in accord with the "Kilroy Principle".

4. The fourth is the natural human desire to do good and coincidentally, to see oneself as good. There is a strong innate basis for empathy and pro-social behavior. And because humans are self-conscious, because we both are ourselves and see ourselves, are objects to ourselves as well as subjects of our experiences, we cannot fail to also judge ourselves using the same ethical categories we use to judge others. Despite our immense capacities for self-deception, we cannot not know what we know -- when we act against moral principles we apply to others we cannot entirely fail to judge ourselves and undermine our own sense of our moral goodness. Nothing is more harmful to our lives than this undermining of our own self-esteem. As a result, self-consciousness conduces to pro-social motivation. I will call this the Rescher Principle, because the philosopher Nicholas Rescher has explained it so clearly, even though it is found in philosophy since Plato. (See, for example, Rescher's Unselfishness: The Role of the Vicarious Affects in Moral Philosophy and Social Theory. Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press), 1975.)

Teaching and ED 2.0

In the last post I considered the place of teachers and teaching in ED 2.0. The question now is why teachers would contribute to spontaneous voluntary self-organizing projects such as the imagined Wiki-ricullum or the YouTeach Video platform.

The answer is this:

1. The Aristotelian Principle. Such contributions provide pathways alternative to conventional school teaching in which teachers can further develop unalientated knowledge and skills: in subject matter disciplines, in creative pedagogy, and in communications technology;

2. The Picasso Principle. Such contributions provide social, cultural and technological pathways for unalienated creative and elegant works: video courses, novel curricula, creative projects in children's literature, collaborative projects and many more;

3. The Kilroy Principle. Teachers are human. They want to feel they make a difference. Their alienated work in school actually works against the sense that they matter; it nullifies their personal agency, subtracting them from their own classrooms. Their contributions to ED 2.0 projects, like those of the contributors to LINUX code, are concrete proofs of their existence and links to communities of mutual recognition;

4. The Rescher Principle. Most teachers are strongly motivated by the desire to be good and to see themselves as good. Participating in projects which improve the quality and diversity of learning experiences, reducing costs to poor children and poor districts (e.g., open source textbook projects, free video courses), connecting students with those from other social class and ethnic backgrounds, etc., are all opportunities to do good in concrete, visible, ways.

All of these motivations exist to different degrees in different humans, whether or not they work as professional teachers in schools. So we should not expect that every potential teacher-contributor will be motivated to join self-organizing educational communities. And we should also not expect anything approaching an equal contribution from those who join. My postulate is that like wikipedians, many people will want to contribute something to ED 2.0 and some few will devote themselves to it as a fundamental life commitment.


  1. Very provocative writing, and as a teacher and an artist I can see myself in several of these examples (I won't tell you which ones!)

  2. I agree, but I'm not so sure about what you said at the beginning. Where are you getting your information? I'm not disagreeing, but I'm just wondering how you came to that conclusion.

    Justin Davis
    Author does not represent the position of LSI, which screens content as an internet filter to K-12 institutions.