Genius Hour: How to Motivate Students Using Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery

Jamie McQueen

Jamie McQueen

 In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink discusses three key components necessary to develop an individual’s motivation: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. According to Pink, autonomy is, “the desire to be self-directed,” mastery is “the urge to get better at stuff,” and purpose is the desire to “make a contribution” and to create a “transcendent purpose.”

Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, (which should be required reading) sheds light on what aging individuals want out of their remaining months and years in their lives: autonomy and purpose. I saw this in my own father when he stopped physical therapy; his energy and passion for life waned. Likewise, whenever I was home and offered to complete basic tasks his response was, “I can do it myself.” Needless to say, when his autonomy and purpose was removed, so was his life pull.

Teaching here at Whitby, we are fortunate with the freedom to choose units and topics to teach and are supported by the school in a never-ending quest for mastery through self-chosen professional development opportunities. Certainly, the purpose of teaching is helping students develop into citizens of the world who know what is right and are open to the Other.

If autonomy and purpose increases significance to our elders’ lives, and our own motivation stems from autonomy, purpose, and mastery, doesn’t it make sense to offer these same opportunities when choosing how to motivate students?


Rather than looking at contemporary thinkers and writers for validation, one could easily turn to Whitby’s Mission Statement: Whitby inspires a passion for learning and empowers each child to take responsibility as an open-minded, principled citizen in a global community.

Mastery. Autonomy. Purpose.

At the start of the 2015-16 school year, 7th grade students, in their English class, were provided with the opportunity to create their own learning opportunities . Since then they have taken one hour per week to pursue whichever topic they wanted with the only stipulations that they present and reflect on their learning.

Through their own personal blogs, students have reflected on their process and challenges. Now they are tasked with celebrating their learning in presentation.

Students will present their Genius Hour on Wednesday, December 16, from 8:15-10:00am at Whitby.

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Jamie McQueen

Jamie McQueen

Jamie McQueen, an Upper School English teacher, is an international educator whose aim is to increase students' perspectives on the world and aid in their development as caring and principled members of our interconnected community.