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Mar 18

Chris Smeaton

Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy

Educational reform is hard. If it was easy, we’d already have arrived where inclusive education was the norm and no achievement gap existed. But although we are on that journey, we have yet to arrive, in part because educational reform requires change and change is simply…hard! Complicating the issue is that the system, especially in Alberta is far from broken and in fact could easily and truthfully be described as already good. Furthermore, moving from a good to great system requires significant change that in all honesty has little of an urgency factor. To succeed and bring about the educational change required, to be a truly inclusive system, meeting the needs of each child, education must be motivated. The motivation that I speak of is not what most of us have grown up with, the carrot and stick model, but rather what author Daniel Pink suggests in his book, “Drive.” Today, education must be motivated by purpose, mastery and autonomy in order to meet our desired goals.

Purpose: I would suggest that most educators entered the profession because of an innate desire to help children. I would further suggest that most educators maintain that desire throughout their careers. The public should recognize this fact and be grateful for those professionals. But I see desire and purpose as slightly different. Desire is a wish and therefore, if not “granted” can fade. However, purpose is beyond the wish because purpose also insinuates action. It is not only a wish for but more importantly a will to! The purpose required for significant educational change comes from a deep rooted belief that I can and more importantly I will make a difference in each child’s life every day! Purpose does not make up excuses, it just does! It is about efficacy and is linked to what Michael Fullan refers to as the moral imperative.  Purpose is about the heart and begins the journey of motivation.

Mastery: Purpose is the first requirement to motivate but it cannot move forward without mastery. The will needs to be married to skill. Most educators would argue that throughout their careers they have always tried to meet the needs of each child. I would agree. But intention and implementation are two very different products. Mastery shifts our intentions to fruition. Instead of wishing to meet the needs of each child, we actually do! Success breeds success! The more mastery we develop in education, the more likely we are able to meet the needs of each child in our classes, schools and systems. Education is motivated by believing in our ability to first make a difference and subsequently, making that difference. Mastery requires a dual commitment from the system and the professional. BOTH need to allocate time and money to ensure mastery. What we’ve done in the past has produced good results but only through mastery will we be able to produce great results. While purpose is about the heart, mastery is about the head.

Autonomy: The final piece of the puzzle and most difficult to achieve in education is autonomy. I have been quoted before that “autonomy is wished for but not really wanted.” Education is part of a larger societal norm that promotes or at the minimum accepts the blame game. It is always someone else’s fault. Autonomy shifts that blame or more importantly the responsibility on to ourselves. Given our societal tendency to point our finger at the culprit, this requires a tremendous shift for education. Autonomy reminds us of that old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” Autonomy does not mean that everything is up for grabs. There will always be some sort of required structure that sets limits and boundaries. The autonomy functions within the existing structure and allows educators maximum flexibility in forwarding purpose and mastery. And autonomy, does not promote isolation. We’ve come too far in educational research not to continue and promote collaboration. Autonomy is  most positively impacted when organizational trust is high and a culture of risk taking is encouraged.  

Educational reform requires us to break existing habits, challenge our current ideals and change our practices. It requires time and unless motivated to do so, it will continue with minor tweaks at best. In our ever changing, face paced world, we must be motivated to challenge our paradigms. Our success to build the world we want to live in will be long term and sustainable when our motivation is focused on purpose, mastery and autonomy.

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