A recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman bemoans the fact that the United States is now ranked number 11 in Newsweek’s list of the 100 best countries in the world.  He couples that with a reference to “shrunken student motivation,” cited by Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson as a cause for much of the failure of school reform measures and one reason for the low ranking. 

Although Friedman goes on to discuss his perception of a national “values breakdown,” his reference to motivation struck a chord with me.  It is hard to find a shortage of motivation at Greenhill.  Each day, I am impressed and gratified to find both students and faculty taking on new responsibilities, trying out new strategies or methods of teaching and learning, and looking for new ways to contribute to the community.  And motivation does not just pertain to the new and different.  Many members of our community are motivated to complete daily responsibilities at a consistently high level.  They get up every morning determined to make the very best of the day.

In his bestseller Drive, Daniel Pink cites three elements of motivation that work.  After he discredits external forces such as rewards or the carrot and the stick, he states that people are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  These three qualities, at work or singly, maximize human potential and serve to trigger high level performance.

In Genie Burke’s Cold War History elective, all three of these motivators are at work.  Last summer, Genie received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Greenhill Trustee Grants to travel to Cambridge for the Churchill Seminar.  As she read and explored in the Churchill College archives, Genie developed a plan for her Greenhill students. She asked them to read several original documents relating to the early years of the Cold War and to prepare for a Socratic seminar based on their understanding, analysis, and synthesis of these documents.

I sat in the back of the class on seminar day and could barely keep from either applauding or joining in.  First, you need to know that Genie spoke not a word.  Her students, seated in a circle, began with questions and proceeded to express their positions based on the evidence.  Genie silently took notes as the conversation moved from student to student in an atmosphere of civil exchange.  The levels of questions contributed to an ever-deepening understanding of the issues and Churchill’s role on the world stage even after World War II.  The seminar was a powerful display of intellectual engagement.

What motivated this excellent moment in the life of Greenhill?  Grades, maybe, but I don’t think that is the whole story.  Aside from being motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose herself as she sought greater understanding and knowledge last summer, Genie provided her students with the opportunity to become experts, to direct the conversation themselves, and to connect history to world events outside the scope of their reading.  A perfect storm of motivation.  I hope Thomas Friedman reads this blog.

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