Driven: Autonomy in the Writing Classroom

March 12, 2013

Unmotivated (2.0)
Based on written feedback and our seminar, I know I have a lot of work to do in revision. The first concern I had after the seminar is that my readers did not all take a common, clear understanding from the blog. I think that lack of clarity comes from a lack of a clear thesis statement, weak evidence, and a topic that is too broad for my purposes. The other concern is in style. I’m not worried about editing with a rough draft, but I am concerned that so many of my sentences are confusing in their meaning. Even my tone was confusing at times. I need to revise sentences for clarity and fluency, so they aren’t so disrupted by clauses and phrases.

My first semester teaching in North Carolina, a colleague handed me a generous stack of released prompts from the state writing test and said, “You’re teaching the writing test.” With that decree, my job, my life, and my sole purpose became that exam. Its enormity was the club with which I battered my students, as they composed essay after essay about literary features in works of world literature.

Needless to say, they were not as motivated as I was. In fact, after a semester I wasn’t as motivated as I had been. It was a semester devoid of creativity, devoid of voice and play, devoid of audiences and purposes and, I’m afraid to say, meaning.

Driven to Write
It was Daniel H Pink’s book Drive that coerced this recollection. Pink writes about motivating people using what he calls motivation 3.0. Its predecessor, motivation 2.0, focused on reward. Do this; get that. Achieve goal a; earn reward b. Write this well; get that grade. That method, motivation 2.0, was my motivation tool. In that my students wrote essays the way I prescribed, it was effective. But I never imagined that they were intrinsically inspired writers.

Pink’s motivation 3.0 is intrinsic. It is an internal will to create driven by enjoyment and the will to produce. “When the reward is the activity itself,” he writes, “deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best–there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road.”  But my students never felt rewarded by the products they created. What was missing, Pink makes clear in his book, were three factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. By designing writing curriculum around these factors, writing teachers can increase the level of motivation of student writers.

Autonomy in the Writing Classroom
In my English II classes long ago, students wrote essays on the topics I assigned. Sometimes, they revised what I suggested; sometimes, they didn’t revise at all. Their autonomy, their power to decide what and who and how: it simply did not exist. That lack of autonomy can be crippling, as it was for Sam, a kid who would sit a full ninety minutes and never write a word.

“How do I start?” he would ask.

“You should begin by defining the term identified in the prompt,” I would respond to no avail.

Pink offers a better answer. Give people, whether they be students or employees, a choice. Of autonomy, Pink writes, “autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.” Autonomy means writing students have the authority to make choices about their writing, choices Sam was never afforded in my class.

The act of writing is naturally rich with choice. Writers make decisions about topic, genre, purpose, and audience. They decide on tone and style, length and structure. Student writers should be no different. As Pink reminds his readers, “We’re born to be players, not pawns.” Here are a few ways students can be players, not pawns, in the writing classroom.

  1. Scour magazines, blogs, newspapers, even Facebook for topics they find interesting and relevant.
  2. Choose from a variety of formats (letters to the editor, pamphlets, newspaper articles, blogs, infographics, business letters, speeches, dialogues, narratives, sonnets, podcasts, radio commercial) for composing their writing.
  3. Remix their own traditional work using a variety of digital tools, including Xtranormal, Educreations, Pixton, Voicethread, Blogger, Twitter, Audacity.
  4. Produce a multi-genre research project by exploring a single, self-selected topic through a variety of genres.
  5. Choose partners with whom to collaborate.
  6. Choose areas of focus for revision based on feedback from peers.
  7. Select audiences and purposes for their writing.
  8. Produce multiple starts, or partial drafts, in response to a single assignment and select the best one for revision and publication.

Autonomy In Practice
My student Sam didn’t have the opportunity in my class that many of my future students had and that many of his more experienced teachers probably offered him. Since then, I have seen the benefits of student choice in the writing process play out with great effect for many students.

A girl named Michelle, a painfully unmotivated student, never seemed to care about school or her work in my class. When we began writing This I Believe essays several weeks into her sophomore year, she produced a list of personal beliefs, most of them throwaways. For three days we started new drafts on new topics, knowing that one of them had to stick. She had the right to choose any topic she wanted, and after three days, when the time came to choose one draft to develop to completion, she chose to write yet another draft on a fourth topic. That fourth start became her final essay, the one she completed, and the one that made her realize there really was something valuable in the writing she was able to produce.

When the least motivated student chooses to write one extra draft instead of taking the easiest route, that’s motivation, and it results in learning. I saw the same sort of result earlier this year with a senior in my friend’s English IV class.

Seniors at my school complete a semester-long research project called Project Connect. As an instructional coach, I invited senior English teachers to bring their students to the media center to remix their research using digital tools like VoiceThread and Xtranormal. I remember watching one student, Darnell, work at a table with other students producing Voice Thread. According to his teacher, Darnell had embodied academic lethargy the entire semester. For this assignment, something about the opportunity to choose a means of publication, something about choosing the look and feel and structure and length of his product, something about choosing even the group of students he worked with seemed to motivate him. He actually composed. He actually produced. He actually led his peers in informal collaboration through the process.

Granted, autonomy is not an absolute cure for the unmotivated writer. Michelle and Darnell certainly haven’t signed contracts with The New Yorker or won Pulitzer Prizes. The other two legs of Pink’s tripod, mastery and purpose, are essential parts of the equation, but we’ll save them for parts two and three of this blog. What can be said about autonomy is this. Autonomy is power: the power of choice, the power of intellectual self-governance. Given some autonomy, student writers seem far more likely to delve into their writing, and far more likely, therefore, to grow as writers.


Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead, 2011. Kindle.