Always Put the Cart Before the Horse

Last week, I posted about the search for the silver bullet, summarizing the idea that people and organzations often spend time seeking the magic solution instead of facing their fear of the metaphorical werewolf and spending time understanding the problem.

What if you don’t try to find the silver bullet, but the silver bullet finds you? What if a Eureka moment strikes you while in a conversation, at a conference, in a tweetchat – how do you know if it’s the right solution for the issues at hand?

When it comes to making a decision about the solution, my advice would be: always put the cart before the horse.

Some may read this advice and think, “Tony…are you sure you know how the saying goes?”


The old saying actually goes, “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” I get the intended meaning, to conjure the image above of a cart being placed in front of a horse in space. Putting a cart before a horse in space obviously doesn’t make much sense, since the horse is meant to pull the cart along a path.

What I am suggesting, however, is that we always put the cart before the horse in time.

When it comes to decision-making, always make sure you first understand what you’re trying to pull before you decide how you’re going to pull it. Run across an idea for a new technology? Consider the size and scope of the change you are hoping to make, and ask yourself if this technology is up to the task. Does it fit your needs? Is it the right-sized horse for the cart? Is it aligned to the mission of the organization looking to move the cart forward?

Once you’re ready to start pulling, then put the horse up front and center. Just recognized that the goal is not to have the best, strongest, fastest horses – it’s to have the right horses to move the carts that carry the organization. You’ll only know you have the right horse if you understand the size and shape of the cart (and the cargo inside of it).

A friend of mine hates idioms. She said once that she never uses them, because she doesn’t know their etymology and what they actually mean. I happen to love idioms, for the exact same reason. Often born from a bygone era, these idioms can give us a window into understanding ourselves, if we take the time to wrestle with them.

Through shared stories, we learn about how to approach similar issues in the future. Share your stories: when have you experienced considering the cart (and the cargo inside) before choosing the horse? What were the results?

The Search for a Silver Bullet

Imagine a problem that faces you. Perhaps a cohort of your students don’t seem to be learning. Maybe averaged grades just don’t “add up” in your head. Maybe you get high scores at golf (which is not a good thing, by the way). Whatever the problem may be, we often approach the solution in the same way: we search for a silver bullet.

Off we go, on the search for that perfect fix. Maybe it’s a shiny program, the latest fad of an instructional strategy, a newly minted technology. We scour the web, we call on colleagues, we look everywhere for that singular solution that will make our problem disappear.

Pretty soon, we find something that we are sure will do the trick. “This is it,” we think as we unwrap the proverbial box. “This is what we have been looking for all this time.” And we try it. We start the new program, we unveil the new technology. We get it in everyone’s hands. We go all in. And we watch. And we wait.

And it doesn’t work. Even with the program in place, the problem is still there, staring us in the face.

Why doesn’t the silver bullet work? The whole premise of silver bullets goes back to stories of heroes defending themselves against scary monsters like werewolves and witches. The silver bullet is the werewolf’s solitary weakness, the one weapon that can vanquish it from existence. Everything and everyone has a weakness – I guess the thinking is that we can find the right tool, if we look hard enough for it. Right?

In the world of computing, folks like Fred Brooks argue that there are no silver bullets. They argue that that there is an essential level of complexity of some issues that cannot be tackled with simple solutions. Doing a Google search for “no silver bullet” reveals 600,000 stories that mirror the idea, from America’s tax reform to Bermuda’s energy supply to Australia’s aging workforce.

While I understand the argument being made, I don’t agree with the idiom being used to explain it, as it hasn’t helped to change behavior. The thing is, there are silver bullets. They exist. You can buy them from an ammunition shop if you were so inclined. The issue is that complex issues cannot be eliminated with silver bullets.

Why? Because complex issues are not werewolves. Because werewolves do not exist.


Werewolves – those creatures of lore, born from the full moon, roaming the day as men and the night as monsters – are but one in a legion of ghouls that have grown from our fear. A camper in the woods hears a loud nearby howl under a full moon? Must be a werewolf. A child laying in bed sees movement in the dark corner of the room? Has to be the Bogeyman. A night driver has a large, furry-looking “something-I’ve-never-seen-before” run in front of her car? Bigfoot, obviously.

They make for incredibly entertaining and suspenseful stories. Fortunately for us, they are stories of fiction. The myths of monsters can be traced back to an active imagination in those times where someone is confronted with something they were either too inexperienced, too afraid, or too intimidated to explore. Movement in the corner of the room? Likely a shadow. The big furry thing? Could have been anything – lots of variables at play when driving at night. That howl in the woods? Probably a regular old wolf.

And silver bullets are simply not the cure for these issues. Imagine taking a silver bullet to what you thought was a werewolf, but was actually a shadow. Shooting at a shadow makes holes in your walls, your windows, and potentially your neighbors! Silver bullets do not fix problems: they make problems. Instead of spending our time searching for silver bullets, we need to spend our time understanding the werewolf.

Silver bullets don’t work because they are misaligned to the issue at hand. We don’t need quick fix-it answers. What we need is to understand the problem, to explore the unknown and describe the issues we find as specifically as possible. See a movement in a dark corner? Don’t pull out a gun – pull out a flashlight. Look. Listen. Explore. Get more objective data about the state of things, and let that data help you identify your needs. Then let those specific needs help to define your next steps.

What often keeps us from exploring this unknown is fear, the same fear that invented the werewolf in the first place. What happens when we look under the bed – what if we see something we do not want to see? What will we need to do about what we find once we see it? This fear is what keeps us looking to fix problems from afar, and keeps us away from building solutions from within. It is far less intimidating to find a simpler and more distanced solution – like a silver bullet – that we can apply from afar.

The solution to all of this fear? Go learn. Turn on the light. Open the closet door. Look under the bed. Go into those places that you fear the most, and explore the unknown until you know exactly what needs to be done.

The other folks may be right in that there are no silver bullets, that nothing but hard work and dedicated focus can solve our problems. While I agree, I’ll also posit that it’s more impactful to recognize that there are no werewolves, and that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And the silver bullet for overcoming fear? To face fear head on.

Shooting for Par: The Power of Purposeful Indicators

“Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk.”

— Henry Leon Wilson, 1904

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a brief anecdote of how tackling a problem like mosquito bites can help us better understand school improvement.  That story shed light for many on the recurring pitfalls that leaders tend to encounter in the process of strategic planning for organizational change.

Such a story might be a helpful way of thinking about reaching goals in the short term, but what if the goal is more long-term?  Like perhaps…school improvement for student success?  Or even…getting good golf scores?  Can employing the thought behind strategic planning help a duffer like me start to shoot for par?  And more importantly, can describing a focused approach to becoming a better golfer really help to reframe strategic planning for school improvement?

After more than a few good walks spoiled, I’m willing to give it a shot.


I’m far from a good golfer.  Up until this past spring, I rarely played.  But for some inexplicable reason, becoming better at the game has been on my to-do list for years.  Call it a beaten pride, a thirst for learning, or one too many spoiled walks: after my annual round this Spring Break ended up in the mid-130s again (60+ shots worse than the par of 72, for those unfamiliar with the game), I felt a need to improve.

But how would I get better?  So far, all I knew is that my goal was to get better golf scores, and my strategy was to get better at golf.  That statement could neither be more true nor less helpful.  It didn’t help me know how to act.

I decided that I needed some short-term goals, and some indicators of success toward those goals.  Up to that point, the only thing I “tracked” on the course had been my score, the number of times I struck the ball on each hole before hitting it into the cup.  So I downloaded an app to help me keep up with more than just my scores (MyCaddie Pro, for those interested in a great app that doubles as a GPS course map), and tried to decide what to start looking at.

One of my former students happened to be (and still is) a stud golfer, and he gave me some advice years ago that suddenly came to mind: “If you want to improve your score and you can only practice one thing, practice putting.”  Remembering that my last round felt as if it had far too many putts, I decided to use that as my short-term goal: hit fewer putts per round.  More specifically, my goal became to get my average number of putts per round near 36 (an average of two per hole).  Naturally, my indicator was number of putts per round.  While I had no strategy to reach this goal, at least I had a goal, one that felt attainable.

And then, I went to play.  And over the next three rounds I played, I noticed I still had pretty high scores, without any clue as to how to improve them. After averaging around 43 putts per round (7 higher than my goal), how was I supposed to get any better?

Looking at my scorecard, I noticed an interesting trend, one that helped me recognize that perhaps I was viewing my goal all wrong.  (How often does that happen in the process of school improvement?)  In a classroom situation, I would give you a copy of a couple scorecards and let you look for any trends in putting scores yourself.  Why not do the same now?


Instead of revealing my own thinking, I’ll share another set of scorecards, all collected after having reframed my putting goal (and thus shifting the indicator for success accordingly).  Notice anything different about the putting scores?


Well, for one thing, the scores are lower: 5 putts better per round, on average.  I’m sure that a large part of that improvement has to do with continued practice.  Personally, I attribute that success to one thing: I reframed my goal based on trends I saw in the data.  I started this experiment with the short-term goal of getting my average number of putts per round to 36 (an average of two per hole).  In the first group of scores, I noticed that I had far too many holes with more than two putts.  I realized that I would never reach my goal until I eliminated those 3-putt and 4-putt holes.

I have now reframed my goal: to reduce the number of holes where I have more than two putts.  As a result of the reframed goal, my indicator of success is the average putts per round the number of holes per round where I had two putts or less.

It may seem like a semantic difference, but this clarifying change has brought to light a strategy that has helped immensely in my putting.  Since my goal is now to reduce the number of holes where I putt more than twice, I have taken to the strategy of not necessarily trying to make the first putt.  Instead, I now imagine a hula-hoop up to 5′ in diameter surrounding the hole; my strategy is, with my first putt, I try to hit the ball into that imaginary hula-hoop.  My thinking is that I’m not realistically going to make too many 20-foot putts.  How many of those 20-footers can I get within three feet?  Because I can tap in from three feet without a problem.  It sounds a little hokey, but this strategy has helped me to hit far fewer 3- and 4-putt holes, while still knocking down the occasional long-distance shot on the first putt.

What does ANY of this have to do with School Improvement?

Playing golf is one of my breaks from thinking about work, and yet I find myself thinking about work a lot while playing golf.  Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

In the process of School Improvement, it is so important not only to have a goal, but to have the right goal, one that is clear and “actionable” (if that’s even the right word for this context).  In this golf example, I had a fine goal, but it wasn’t until I reframed that goal that an effective strategy became clear.  In school improvement, how often do we settle for the first goal, instead of thinking long enough and hard enough to find the right one for right now?

Also, just as in my mosquito example from the last post, the indicators here are directly tied to the goal in question.  I don’t keep data on how far back I pull my club while putting, or where I put my feet relative to my hands.  Instead, I tie the indicator directly to the goal: number of putts per round, number of holes per round with more than two putts.  Just like the importance of the clarified goal, there was a certain power in landing on a more purposeful indicator, one that more directly measured the issue I was seeing in my game.  While keeping up with the number of greater-than-2-putt holes may be a bit more challenging than tracking total putts, it is a much better indicator for the issues in my game.  In school improvement, how often do we settle for the indicator that’s easy to measure, instead of thinking long enough and hard enough to find the ones that are important and purposeful enough to measure?

Finally, while I keep those indicators on my scorecard in front of me at all times, my focus on the actual course stays on the strategies I have chosen in order to impact those indicators.  While playing, I’m not thinking about getting par; I’m trying to hit a solid tee shot.  On the green, I’m not concerned with reducing my number of 3-putt holes; I’m trying to putt the ball into that imaginary hula-hoop.  Sometimes, strategic plans take on a life of their own, causing those involved to forget that the purpose of the plan is to help us know how to act.  After choosing a path, schools must put their energies into fully implementing the strategies they have identified in their plans, while keeping their eyes on the chosen indicator to see if their work is having the desired effect.  It seems like both the most difficult and the most important part of strategic planning: studying the right combinations of actions and results to see if our work leads to the desired outcomes.

As for me, so far I’m happy with the results of my little “hula-hoop” strategy, and I am confident that it will help me get better golf scores (the long-term outcome, in my case…aside from having fun, of course).  Next, I’ve decided to start tracking the number of fairways I hit with my tee shot.  After one round of tracking, I’ve noticed that I miss to the right of the fairway A LOT.  Like, “missed-right-of-all-but-one-fairway-in-a-whole-round” a lot.  While I have no strategy as of yet on how to get the tee shot going straighter, I’m hopeful that keeping track of it will help me enjoy a few more good walks in the future.

Bitten by the School Improvement Bug

How much can we learn about school improvement by paying a little attention to something completely unrelated to school improvement?  Let’s find out…

I was sitting on my porch this evening, doing a little of the three R’s – ‘riting, reading, reflecting (sorry, math folks…no ‘rithmetic this time) when I noticed a minor annoyance.  Pesky mosquitos slowly buzzed their way onto my legs, as they are wont to do on a balmy evening in central Virginia.  At least, I assumed there were mosquitos, as I did not see or hear any of them.  All I had to show from their visit were a couple of red bumps on my calves.  Bumps that slowly started to itch.  And itch.  And itch.


Image from:

While I started to scratch my leg to relieve the uncomfortable sensation, I knew that I had found a problem: I needed to stop these bugs from biting me.

As I continued to write, I became more aware of the mosquitos in my surroundings.  I saw a few flying around the porch, and would periodically notice one land on my leg.  That sense of awareness was of course followed by a quick and thorough intervention: with one swift smack, the couple of bugs I caught lay dead at my feet.  While I may end up with a slight bruise at some point (as I think I was a little overzealous with my slaps), “crisis” had been averted.  

Unfortunately, I was not able to catch all of the bugs in this way: before I knew it, two more bite marks surfaced on my legs.  

It would have been easy enough to go inside for my 3R’s time, but I was a little hellbent on enjoying the evening air.  I realized I needed a new plan.  I remembered that we had some Off! spray in the house, and decided to go in and make use of it.  At the same time, I noticed one of our citronella candles next to me, and realized that lighting the candle may help.  Walking inside, I grabbed the bottle of Off! and a box of matches.  After spraying my legs and arms, I proceeded to light the candle and bring it next to my spot of intended repose.

Hopefully, I thought, this plan will work.  How will I know it worked?  Well, for starters, I’ll end up without any new welt marks as a result of these bug bites.

Sure enough, over the next twenty minutes, I was not bitten by a single additional mosquito.  As dusk approached, I celebrated in my success, blew out the candle, and headed inside.

But What Does It All Mean, Basil?

Naturally, I went to my “organizational change” place and put this situation into that context: how would this situation have been written using the language of school improvement?

  • GOAL: Stop these bugs from biting me.
  • KPI: Number of mosquito bites on my legs and arms
  • STRATEGY 1: Kill the bugs by slapping them as they reach my legs.  (This was not successful.)
  • STRATEGY 2: Repel the bugs by lighting a citronella candle and spraying Off! on my legs.  (Success!)

What can we learn by focusing on such a mundane event?

What first jumps out at me is the relationship between my goal, my indicator of success, and my strategies.  While it seems like it goes without saying, I arrived at the goal before deciding on the strategies- the strategies then arose naturally as a response to the problem needing to be addressed.  In instances of planning for school improvement, how often do we fix our eyes on an appealing strategy without considering whether or not it addresses our needs?  Doing so is just would like saying, “Hey, I have a can of Off!  Let’s spray it!”

Secondly, while my strategy did change mid-stream, my goals did not, and neither did my indicators of successful goal attainment.  In my mind, indicators are inextricably tied to the goals: they are the measure of progression toward reaching a goal, and would not change just because the strategy has shifted.  It makes me wonder, how often do we change our indicators based on a shift in strategy?

Admittedly, I did not do a very good job of isolating my strategies.  In the future, I have no idea which strategy was helpful in repeling the mosquitos: the candle or the Off! spray.  At this point, all I know is that to avoid being bitten, I should use both the candle and the Off! spray.  In that sense, how often do we combine multiple strategies in our plans for improvement to the extent that we would be unsure of how to replicate success?

Finally, part of the success of this “plan” was rethinking the implementation strategy.  My first response had been to consider ways of killing the bugs.  Had I continued down that path, I may have ended up with a flyswatter in place of the candle, or a fumigator in place of the Off!  Instead, by rethinking the strategy from “exterminate” to “repel”, I came to a solution that was helpful.  If I wanted a long-term solution in this realm, I could always screen in the porch or something (though I had neither the time, expertise, or desire to do so this evening).  There were a myriad of other options, each of which may have been just as effective in achieving my goal.  The question is, of all the responses I could have, which of these strategies best fits this moment in time, for this situation?

Hope this post is neither too simplistic nor too esoteric- just thought I would share a couple musings around school improvement from a guy who is now in desperate search of some Bactine.

Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning?

Going through the pictures on my phone, I ran across one photo that deserves a little blogging:


About a year ago, I entered my office area’s common space to see the words above written on a piece of chart paper.  Distinguishing the handwriting, I could tell it was a note from our superintendent.  While the statement caught my attention, any more specificity in detail escaped me at the time.  Thankfully, she was able to clarify her note to my teammates and me later that day.

What is an Inspiration Ratio?

“How many teachers does it take,” she asked, “to sustain the passion, the joy, the love of learning for a student, PK-12?”  She went on to define the concept of an “Inspiration Ratio,” a personal “valuation” of one’s educational path.  To find it, each of us must first remember our own PK-12 academic career, and put ourselves back into the role of student.  Then, by using the total number of teachers that worked with each of us as the denominator, and the “inspirational teachers” that stoked our passion for learning as a numerator, each learner can calculate his or her own Inspiration Ratio.  The “1/27” was not a date or a location, she explained, but a sample Inspiration Ratio: of her 27 teachers over her PK-12 student career, she distinctly remembered one who inspired her to see true joy in learning.  What’s interesting, she noted, is that while only one of these 27 teachers had spurred on this excitement for lifelong learning, for her, it only took one (thereby displaying the power of just one teacher).  She then challenged each of us to consider our own Inspiration Ratios, the impact that our teachers had on our current path, and the students for whom we may be that one teacher.

My own Inspiration Ratio

Since that afternoon, I have done several different back of the envelope calculations of my own Inspiration Ratio, as I am sure you are thinking about doing right now.  While I find a slightly different value each time, the level of engagement I feel while walking through the footsteps of my own learning path is the same.  In an instant, I am back in those hallways, seeing every assignment and hearing every verbal exchange anew.  I furrow my brow with the design challenge of a real-world experiment that has dozens of “right” answers.  I pour my soul onto the practice floor to earn back the spot in the basketball team’s starting five.  I panic as I stand before a room full of underclassmen I have never met, preparing to recite the first words of Phillip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits.”  Back in those adolescent shoes- but through these adult eyes- I start a list of all of those teachers that have ever worked with me in school, and consider the impact that they have had on my life.  (P.S. If it strikes you to move away from your browser or RSS reader and make your own list now, please do so by all means.  This is a static text, after all – it will still be here when you return. Just promise to come back!)

In calculating my own Inspiration Ratio, I’m struck by how in minutes, I can remember the name of 71 teachers that I worked with over my PK-12 academic career.  Without too much challenge, I even recall those high school days right down to each year’s 7-period class schedule!  Within this 13-year timeframe, I count 17 distinct teachers who I remember as having a direct impact on my passion for lifelong learning, giving me an Inspiration Ratio of 17/71.  In other words, of all of the teachers that worked with me as a student, I consider 25% of them as having directly inspired me to sustain a love of learning.

Of my 71 teachers, what do I remember most about those 17?  They did not give me a voice- they allowed me to find my own.  They did not push me- they presented me with opportunities for growth that were both challenging and attainable, and just as I thought I had reached as far as I could, they encouraged me to reach farther.  They did not tell me that I did a “good job” in my learning- they instead celebrated my desire, as one teacher put it, “to learn just because the world is there, waiting to be understood.”  In short, even in the shortest of conversations, I felt that they built a relationship with me, and engaged me as a learner.  Each of those moments live on forever as I carry these teachers with me- long after they have “finished the job” of teaching my class, they continue to help me grow toward continuous improvement.

I wonder often which, if any, of my former students would have listed me as one of the teachers in their Inspiration Ratio’s numerator.  Even as I consider the question of how I might have inspired them, however, I am reminded of how they are the ones who inspire me.  My students and my teammates give me the drive to put in the necessary time and energy to keep growing, and they make it feel as natural as breathing.  Without that inspiration, I know I would have been driven from this profession long ago.  It dawns on me that this process of sustaining a love of learning is a cyclical system, a reinforcing feedback loop that Senge would label as having a snowball effect.  So long as each of us seeks to inspire the love of learning in those around us, we will continue to be inspired by the passion of those around us.

Organizational connection

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of identifying “what drives [our] resource engine.”  He challenges organizations to seek out those ratios have the greatest impact on economic growth.  (For example, in the business world, finding the “unit-x” that best fits a “profit-per-unit-x” ratio can help greatly to clarify their mission with pinpoint precision.)  In the social sectors, however, finding the right resources to consider within the ratio is more important then finding the right “unit x” for the denominator (since it’s a given that profit isn’t exactly something educators seek).  Since teachers have such a profound effect on student learning, and the “ultimate goal” for our profession is to inspire lifelong learning, could the Inspiration Ratio somehow fit as a step in defining our resource engine?  In other words, do we ask ourselves this question enough: “What effect will this decision have on our abilities and opportunities to inspire lifelong learning?”

Just imagine the concept using the love of learning as a guide for each of our decisions as educators, with the ultimate purpose of getting every student’s Inspiration Ratio closer to 100%…is it possible that the answer could be that simple?

Dan Pink’s take on “merit pay” in education

A few months ago, I read Drive – Dan Pink’s latest book about “the surprising truth about what truly motivates us” – and instantly found myself reading it through my educational lens, through the lens of the profession where it is the love of learning more than anything that draws me in (along with so many of my colleagues).  

On March 20th, a small group of central Virginians were able to discuss this latest book with Pink as he visited Charlottesville as a speaker during the Virginia Festival of the Book.  An intimate 40+ person crowd collected in Charlottesville’s CitySpace on the first warm day of the year, engaging in a discussion about the concept of “merit pay” in education as it relates to the central theme of Pink’s book.  During that conversation, Pink asserted, “What teachers, principals, and school superintendents do- to work so hard, for so little pay, in a profoundly screwed-up system- is heroic.”

The contents of that powerful discussion found their way into my e-mail inbox yesterday afternoon in the form of Dan Pink’s latest e-newsletter, sent out for all subscribers to enjoy. Many thanks to Dan Pink (@danielpink on twitter) for adding his perspective to this continuing conversation:

UPDATE: Since the publication of this blog, Dan Pink has posted “Eight Points about Merit Pay for Teachers” on his own website. Pretty high-quality post, highly recommended reading.

Q: Dan, there’s been a lot of talk lately about “merit pay” for schoolteachers – that is, tying teacher salaries to student performance, especially on standardized tests. What do you think of this approach?

A: A few years ago, I thought this was a great idea. Incentivize teachers and the pay the outstanding one more? What coud be wrong with that?  It’s logical, straightforward, and fair.

However, after looking at 50 years of research on human motivation for DRIVE, I’ve changed my mind. I think that this approach, despite is surface appeal, has more flaws than strengths – and that there’s a simpler, more effective alternative. 

Here’s my reasoning:

For starters, most proposals for “merit pay” (sorry, I can’t use the term without quotation marks) tie teacher compensation to student scores on standardized tests. That’s a disaster. It focuses teachers almost single-mindedly on training their students to pencil in correct answers on multiple choice tests – and turns classrooms into test prep academies. (What’s more, it can encourage cheating, as Georgia’s experience shows.) So let’s knock out this approach to merit pay.

A second option is for school principals to decide who gets performance bonuses.  Again, there’s a certain theoretical appeal to this method. But I’ve yet to meet a teacher who considers it fair, let alone motivating.  Teachers worry that principals don’t have sufficient information to make such decisions and that “merit pay” would be based too heavily on who’s best at playing politics and currying favor.  So let’s kibosh this method, too.

A third approach is to use a variety metrics to determine who gets a bonus. You could measure teacher performance using: standardized scores for that teacher’s students; evaluations of the teacher’s peers, students, parents, and principal; a teacher’s contribution to overall school performance; time devoted to professional development; how much the teachers’ students improved over the previous year; and so on. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it has a huge downside: It would force resource-strapped schools to spend enormous amounts of time, talent, and brainpower measuring teachers rather than educating students.  Schools have enough to do already. And the costs of establishing and maintaining elaborate measurement systems would likely outweigh the benefits.

In short, I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair. What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars.  Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already.

Fortunately, I think there’s an easier and more elegant solution – one that’s also supported by the science of human motivation. 

First, we should raise the base pay of teachers. Too many talented people opt out of this career because they’re concerned about supporting their families. For prospective teachers, raising base salaries would remove an obstacle to entering the profession.  For existing teachers, it’s a way to recognize the importance of their jobs without resorting to behavior-distorting carrots and sticks. The science reveals a paradox about money and motivation: In most cases, the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Raising base salaries would help take the issue of money off the table. Instead fretting about paying their bills on an insufficient salary or scheming to get a small bonus, teachers could focus on the work they love.

At the same time, we have to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. Teaching, like any profession, has its share of duds. Showing these folks the door, which now is quite difficult, is the right thing to do.  It’s better for students, of course. But it’s also better for the teachers who remain. Just as it’s very motivating to have great colleagues, it’s incredibly de-motivating to have lazy or incompetent ones.

So . . . if I could wave a magic wand, I’d dispense with elaborate and complicated “merit pay” schemes for teachers. Instead, I’d raise teachers’ base pay and make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.  That solution is simpler, fairer, and much more consistent with what truly motivates high performance.

Thanks again for reading.


Dan Pink

P.S.  Hope you’ll also check out the Pink Blog if you get a moment.  Our two most popular posts last month explored whether purpose is really an effective motivator and examined the differences between failure and mediocrity is my website on business, motivation and creativity.  You can also follow me on Twitter @danielpink.

4408 Butterworth Place, Washington, DC 20016, USA

Striving for the Wisdom to Know the Difference

Each week (on Tuesdays around 7pm), I look forward to tuning into #edchat on Twitter, where educators around the world get together to “put their thoughts out there” on a common topic.  Tonight’s #edchat topic: “Where should we place our efforts for educational reform? What is most/least important?”  As much as I look forward to sharing my thoughts, I feel most interested in the opportunity to learn from what I hear – my intention is usually to take these tweeters’ disparate 140-character snippets and listen for the trends that emerge so as to help me learn.

Unfortunately, I left tonight’s #edchat feeling angry and frustrated, my back and shoulders tied in knots.  I had spent 2+ hours considering a myriad of posts that all addressed a different aspect of ed reform, most often focused on blaming ‘those responsible’ for propagating such a system.  Meanwhile, I spent my time with responses that kept a pretty common theme (edited to remove names & abbreviations in cases other than re-tweets):

  • I took poetic license to make an I-statement RT @spedteacher: If students don’t pay attention, I must stop blaming them & start looking at what I’m doing
  • It’s the only place to start- the only thing I have the power to change is me. 😉
  • We are ‘them.’ We are a part of the system. If I wish the system to change, how will I change?…In other words, what will I do tomorrow as a response to what I’ve learned today?
  • RT @pvil One big change is a teacher’s change- from shepherd to browser, from area specialist to education specialist
  • It makes me think- “if not everyone spends time changing and adjusting from what they learn, and I feel as if it is a problem that they do not make this a habit, then what will I do differently tomorrow?”
  • I agree, and note that changing how we view ourselves is not just the quickest way to reform, it’s the only way…as we are all members of the ed system. All each of us can change is our own response to our surroundings…with the hope that each change we undergo evokes an opportunity for a different response by those around us.

Exasperated at the discrepancy I felt between my own philosophy and that which I was hearing, I finally put down TweetDeck and took a moment to reflect in my now infamous Moleskine (my 4th since starting this job last June), writing a short narrative that in retrospect reminds me in concept of the Serenity Prayer: 

“I cannot change others.  I can only change my response to my environment.  If I don’t see the environment I wish to see, I must ask, ‘What in my response am I willing to change, and how do I think that change might affect my environment?’ If I decide that I am not willing to make that change in my own response, how do I let go?”

The irony of my frustration hit me like a ton of bricks, and simultaneously released the tension in my shoulders and back: I had to let go of my frustration in trying to change others’ thinking, shut down the computer for the night, and decide on a new response tomorrow.  

Sometimes, maybe we should all apply our own advice to others to our own practice…I bet we would get some interesting ideas for next steps.