The "Drive" to Succeed at National History Day

Earlier this school year, I picked two books for parents at The Beech Hill School to read – Mindset by Carol Dweck and Drive by Daniel Pink.  In the fall, folks read Mindset, and we shared an evening speaking about the book and its connection to our school and our kids.  Throughout the winter, folks have been reading Drive, and this coming Tuesday we will meet to discuss this book.  The ideas put forth in these two books are quite complementary and undergird much of the “what” and “why” that make The Beech Hill School.  While preparing for the book discussion, I was re-reading Drive and reviewing the ideas. I read this book for the first time over 5 years ago, and realize how deeply Pink’s ideas have become embedded in my own philosophy.  Moreover, I am pleased to see how Pink’s ideas have allowed for my students to find success and fulfilment at BHS.


Recently, one of my students (Aidan) participated in the state-wide National History Day competition that was held at a nearby university.  This was the third year that he participated in the event.  In the past, he had only found moderate success.  This year, however, he came in first place, securing himself a spot in the upcoming national competition.  His success in this competition, and the motivation to even participate, exemplifies much of what Daniel Pink details in his book.

In general, Pink found that success is most often found when an individual is motivated intrinsically, rather than by an external force – commonly referred to as the carrot and the stick. Such was the case for Aidan.  His motivation was entirely intrinsic, as the quality of Aidan’s work would have no effect on his grades in history class. He opted to participate in National History Day as a part of our elective program, and in our program, outcome grades are not given for electives.

Specifically, Pink offers that when individuals have autonomy to pursue their interests, an opportunity to engage deeply with material in a quest for mastery, and a purpose for their work – an individual will be more highly motivated than through more traditional rewards and punishments.  Once again, Aidan’s success clearly validates Pink’s work. He was given autonomy, in that, he elected to participate in National History Day of his own volition. Furthermore, he could select what he would investigate and how he would present his findings.  His topic, “The Easter Rising,” interested him a great deal, and his research took him deeply into the topic.  Many middle school history classes would not even cover this topic, so this opportunity to strive for mastery in this domain was quite appealing to the young man.  The purpose of his work was also clearly understood, as he knew he was going to be judged at the statewide competition.

Finally, Aidan’s motivation and success illustrate Pink’s notion that intrinsically motivated individuals usually outperform those that are extrinsically motivated in the long run.  Aidan had participated in the event in two previous years.  All the factors were in place for him to find success in previous years, but he had not put it all together.  Pink asserts that successful people work hard because they are looking to “control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures.”  Such was the case for Aidan.  Over time, he sustained the drive to participate in NHD, and eventually stayed motivated over the course of 3 years of competition.

I look forward to meeting with folks next week to discuss Drive and will highlight Aidan’s success as an example of Pink’s premise.  At The Beech Hill School, the ideas in Drive have allowed our teachers and students to engage deeply in material and to persevere through adversity.  It is all too common for teachers and parents to lament that their children are not motivated.  By adopting some of Pink’s ideas, we can help to keep the flame of motivation burning brightly in our children.

The Author of the Post:

Rick JohnsonThe Head of School at The Beech Hill School, has worked for over 20 years in independent school education.  In addition to his work at The Beech Hill School, Rick coaches youth sports and is active in the Concord, New Hampshire community.