Montgomery County superintendent Joshua Starr said he is “disappointed” and “astounded” at the national direction of school reform and its emphasis on standardized testing, but that Maryland’s largest school system can pursue a “third way” to improve performance by focusing on what motivates teachers and students rather than how they perform on an annual test, said superintendent Joshua Starr during his second book talk

(Josh Starr hosts his second book talk with author Daniel Pink. Photo courtesy Montgomery County Public Schools)

To stir new ideas about what helps teachers and students invest in their work, Starr invited author Daniel Pink to Rockville on Tuesday night to discuss his best-selling book “Drive,” which draws upon 50 years of research on the science of motivation.

As a new superintendent in Montgomery County, Starr proposed a series of book talks to introduce his educational philosophy to the community. The 90-minute conversation was filmed in front of a studio audience and broadcast on local television. A second group of parents and teachers watched the live event from a Barnes & Noble in Bethesda.

Pink told viewers that the prevailing wisdom about motivation — namely, that rewarding a certain behavior encourages it while punishing a behavior discourages it — does not hold true in today’s businesses or schools.

Extrinsic motivators, such as financial incentives, helped speed up assembly lines during the industrial age. But they don’t work as well to encourage the creative thinking or sound judgment needed in the more complex jobs that characterize today’s economy.

Despite the national push for merit pay, boosting teachers salaries is not a surefire motivator, Pink said. The key is to pay teachers — or any employees — enough, so they do not feel unfairly paid, but beyond that, they need to find motivation from the work itself.

A better way to motivate people nowadays is to give them more autonomy to direct what they do and how they do it.

In some ways, public schools are difficult places to introduce flexibility and autonomy, since they have long compliance checklists of federal and state requirements.

(A second group of parents and educators watched the webcast from Barnes & Noble in Bethesda.)

For more on the discussion, an archived version in available on-line.