Teamwork & Motivation

One of Ken Robinson’s criticisms of Higher Education is that traditional models isolate students, evaluate them all individually, and create a “disjunction between them and their natural learning environment”.  He points out that in a school students are expected to do their “own work“,or risk accusations of cheating that would be called “collaboration” outside the university.

By contrast, one of the explicit learning objectives in accredited engineering undergraduate programs is learning to work in multidisciplinary teams.  Therefore, it behooves us to understand what motivates people and how to structure environments that encourage them to work together — particularly because new information communications technologies (ICT) allow people to work collaboratively more effectively than ever before.

In this video, Clay Shirky introduces us to the idea of “cognitive surplus” — which is term used to describe the otherwise idle hours that people are willing to apply to solve real problems in collaborative settings.  This violates what is understood to be conventional economic wisdom — that people don’t work for free.  (The analogue in education would be that students will not do what is not graded).  However, Shirky’s examples illustrate the difference between things that people are extrinsically motivated to do (working for pay or other rewards from other people), and those that they are intrinsically motivated to do (working for “fun”, or the personal satisfaction derived from the work).

Shirky quotes the famous engineer and inventor Dean Kamen, saying that free cultures “get what they celebrate”, but I suspect that Kamen is no longer concerned with collecting public accolades.  In this video, he tells a series of powerful stories about his personal motives.

As it turns out, Kamen’s motives are not so much different from those of American undergraduate students (the most closely studied population in the history of science).  In this video, Dan Pink explains how cognitive labors are not subject to monetary incentives.  In tasks that require thinking and creativity, people are more driven by a sense of purpose than by pay (or grades?)

This realization calls into question how we assign group work in classrooms.  If we operate on the premise that students will only do what they are graded on and we recognize that group grades allow some students to “free ride” on the labors of others, then we might predict that student work groups will either fail predictably, or result in just a few students doing all the work.

The classic solution to problems of cooperation in groups has been institutionalization.  That is, we form bounded organizations (such as companies and professional societies) that define rules of interaction, belonging, and status.

In this video Shirky attempts to answer the question “How do groups get anything done?”  He argues that advances in ICT have reduced the transaction costs of cooperation so much that we can now substitute coordination for planning.

The “carrots” (incentives, or rewards) and “sticks” (disincentives, or punishments) available to institutions don’t apply to open organizations with transaction costs so low that any individual can contribute any amount.

One of the implications of moving group work outside the institution means that cooperative relationships can form outside the normative goals of the institution.  That is, cooperation can now exist among individuals that are at odds with the status quo ideals of the mainstream.  He predicts 50 years of chaos.

It should be clear that education has already begun the process of de-institutionalization.  As Shirky suggests, “we can see it coming.  We might as well get good at it.”

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