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Headmaster's Address

Monkeys & Puzzles

Starting with academic matters and every year the department of Languages at Oxford University runs a ‘Flash Fiction’ competition for secondary school pupils. This year the Spanish department had two entrants, one in the category for Years 7-11 and one in the category for Years 12-13. Entrants need to write a complete story in Spanish using no more than 100 words, which is a huge challenge. They also have to show imagination and narrative flair and obviously some elements of uniqueness for their story to be highlighted amongst all the participants. This year Daria P’s story was highly commended by the judges and the Spanish Department is very proud of her achievement in such a competitive and challenging event. There isn’t an actual certificate to be presented in this case, but there is a small congratulatory prize from the Spanish Department, so please join me in congratulating her as she comes forward, please.

Next to Drama, and it was wonderful to witness the Year 9 play, The Musicians, last week. The cast thoroughly entertained us in Great Hall; a momentous performance as it was the first Year 9 play in Great Hall since the current Year 12s performed their Year 9 play ‘King Arthur’ in 2019. This comedy was both funny and heart-warming and the whole cast delivered it with an energy and confidence that was impressive. We congratulate the entire cast and crew but two figures stood out: the two leads, Amelia J and Charlotte H, were often on stage on their own and held the attention of the audience with an authority and maturity beyond their years.
Sport this week saw some superb performances in the Cricket block fixture against RHS and some excellent team highlights in the tough Tennis fixtures against Oundle and St Mary’s.

On the Tennis courts, real credit must go to the 1st VI Boys, U16 Boys and U14B Boys’ who all took convincing victories over the toughest opponents of the year, Oundle. It was an extra special pleasure to watch the passion and desire displayed by the 1st VI on Saturday in their performance of the season.

The Cricketers took full points in the Eagle’s Nest Competition this week against RHS Ipswich, winning seven of the nine fixtures. Harry G took 5 wickets for the 1st XI, Harry W took 6 for 7 for the U15A side, Sachin C and Tom B both scored fine half centuries for the 2nd XI, and Nina J and Eve A put on a superb 137 run partnership for the 1st wicket in the 1st XI Girls’ contest. As we move into the half term break, we have a few remaining fixtures, but we can look back on a very successful half term of summer sport for all.

And now to my theme for the day. One day in 1949, Harry Harlow, professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, along with two of his colleagues, gathered eight rhesus monkeys for a two-week experiment. The researchers devised a simple mechanical puzzle – solving it required three steps: pull out a vertical pin, undo a hook, and lift a hinged cover. Pretty easy for you and me, far more challenging for a thirteen-pound lab monkey.

The experimenters placed the puzzles in the monkeys’ cages to observe how they reacted—and to prepare them for tests of their problem-solving prowess at the end of the two weeks. But almost immediately, something strange happened. Unprompted by the experimenters, the monkeys began playing with the puzzles with focus, determination, and what looked like enjoyment. Pretty quickly, they began figuring out how the contraptions worked. By the time Harlow tested the monkeys on days 13 and 14 of the experiment, the primates had become quite adept.

Now, this was a bit odd. Nobody had taught the monkeys how to remove the pin, slide the hook, and open the cover. Even more importantly, nobody had rewarded them with food, affection, or even quiet applause when they succeeded. This puzzled the scientists. It ran counter to the accepted notions of how primates behave —including the bigger-brained, less hairy primates known as human beings. Scientists then assumed that two main drives powered behaviour. The first is the biological drive. Humans and other animals seek to satisfy their hunger, drank to quench their thirst, reproduce, and so on. But that wasn’t what was happening here. Solving the puzzle didn’t lead to food, water, or solve any other biological drive. But that’s OK because psychologists long accepted that there was a second main driver of behaviour. If biological motivations are internal, this second drive is external: it comes from rewards and punishments; incentives or disincentives delivered for behaving in certain ways – often colloquially known as ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’.

They solved the puzzles frequently and quickly; two-thirds of the time they cracked the code in less than a minute.

But this didn’t account for the monkeys’ actions either. As Harlow wrote at the time, and you can almost hear him scratching his head, “The behaviour obtained in this investigation poses some interesting questions for motivation theory, since significant learning was attained and efficient performance maintained, without resorting to …. extrinsic incentives.”

What else could it be? To answer the question, Harlow offered a novel theory—what amounted to a third drive: “The performance of the task,” he said, “provided intrinsic reward.” In other words, the monkeys solved the puzzles simply because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles. They enjoyed it. The joy of the task was its own reward. Perhaps this newly discovered drive—Harlow eventually called it “intrinsic motivation”—was real. But surely it was subordinate to the other two drives. If the monkeys were rewarded—with raisins—for solving the puzzles, they’d no doubt perform even better. Yet when Harlow tested that approach, the monkeys actually made more errors and solved the puzzles less frequently. “Introduction of food in the present experiment,” Harlow wrote, “served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature.” (I love those understated academic phrases: “not reported in the literature”. What he means was that this tore up the rulebook!) In scientific terms, it was akin to rolling a steel ball down a slope to measure its velocity—only to watch the ball float into the air instead.

This experiment suggested that our understanding of the gravitational pulls on our behaviour was seriously inadequate—that what we thought were fixed laws had plenty of loopholes.

Harlow emphasized the “strength and persistence” of the monkeys’ drive to complete the puzzles. Then he noted: It would appear that this drive … may be as basic and strong as the [other] drives ……

Furthermore, there is some reason to believe that [it] can be as efficient in facilitating learning.”

At the time, such thinking was revolutionary – almost heretical, so powerful was the grip which the prevailing two drives (biological imperatives, plus external incentives) held on scientific thinking. So Harlow sounded the alarm. He published scientific papers urging scientists to “close down large sections of our theoretical junkyard” and challenged them to offer fresher, more accurate accounts of human behaviour. The explanation of why we did what we did was, he warned, incomplete. Truly to understand the human condition, Harlow claimed, we had to take account of this third drive. It’s not just biological imperatives, plus ‘carrot and stick’.

This turns out to be massively important – for you in thinking through and understanding your own motivations, for us as teachers, and for organisations in thinking through how to motivate the people who work there. Because it turns out that whilst we, and psychologists, and business leaders, and parents, spend a great deal of time trying to work out how to motivate people, it turns out – and this may be overstating it, but only slightly – that the truth is you can’t really motivate anyone. They have to motivate themselves.

The science of human motivation tells us that alongside those biological imperatives and extrinsic motivations, people are motivated to satisfy three psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Autonomy is our human need to perceive that we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions.

Secondly, relatedness. Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. I think that for teachers, this is a hugely powerful motivation. We want to feel that we are making a difference, a positive difference, by influencing young lives for the better. And finally: competence: the feeling that comes when we can successfully do our job, solve problems, become good at something, like those monkeys felt about their puzzles.

And of course, it’s not just true of monkeys. One of the first research studies on human behaviours at work was at an industrial plant outside of Chicago in 1924. Workers were observed to increase productivity because they were being included in social interactions.

We are social animals and when offered opportunities to work together, such as in teams, we improve our engagement and productivity. We thrive on connection. This is true at school, and it is also true of work. We spend an enormous percentage of our time at school or at work, getting ready for work or lessons, preparing, thinking about what we’re going to say or do.

So: it’s not all about money – that’s the classic extrinsic reward. There’s hardly a single adult here in this Chapel who couldn’t quite easily find another job which would likely be better paid than the one they are doing as teachers. It’s also powerfully about intrinsic reward: connectedness, autonomy, and a sense of competence. As you make the important decisions you have ahead of you, about subject choices, or career choices, university choices, and so on – remember that. Look for the intrinsic motivation: you may find that in autonomy, or the enjoyment which comes from the mastery of something, or in the social connection it provides. Carrots and sticks only go so far.

(This assembly is based on “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” – by Daniel H Pink)