The Progress Principle at School: One Day at a Time

discouragedteacherI hope it’s just me, but I’ve talked to a lot of discouraged educators lately, and it is just September.

Why discouraged? Sometimes new laws or policies make an already demanding job even harder. Sometimes schedules are crazy or ceilings drip or test prep eats up far too much time. Sometimes folks feel blamed for social problems far beyond their control. Sometimes enthusiastic teachers’ new ideas are met with cynicism rather than encouragement. So what’s a creative teacher to do?

At least one beginning is to think about how our emotional responses to the stresses around us impact our ability to come up with creative solutions. Mueller and colleagues found that when conditions became uncertain, individuals are less likely to generate creative ideas, or even to recognize a creative solution when it is presented. Stress and uncertainly appear to make creativity more difficult—just when it is likely to be needed most.

This seems consistent with Amabile’s research on the environmental forces that drive creativity in organizations. Amabile and her colleagues studied the day-to-day experiences of workers in organizations focused on innovation, by examining thousands of diary entries. They discovered a pattern they dubbed the Progress Principle.

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

So (I hear you say) how does that relate to discouraged educators? Certainly our work is meaningful, but do we see ourselves making progress? stepsCan we see our steps forward? If we want to be able to devise solutions to the very real problems faced in schools, we, the educators at all levels, need to unleash our own creative potential. And we are going to have a harder time doing that in uncertain (to say nothing of toxic) environments. Amabile and Kramer continue:

Early on, we realized that a central driver of creative, productive performance was the quality of a person’s inner work life—the mix of emotions, motivations, and perceptions over the course of a workday. How happy workers feel; how motivated they are by an intrinsic interest in the work; how positively they view their organization, their management, their team, their work, and themselves—all these combine either to push them to higher levels of achievement or to drag them down.

Our “inner work lives,” and those of our colleagues, are major driving forces in the creativity and success of our work environments. While much of Amabile’s writing is targeted at managers, we can have an important impact on our school or university environments through our own words and actions. Amabile and colleagues identified four types of triggers that can impact a work day: catalysts, nourishers, inhibitors, and toxins. As you might imagine, catalysts are actions that directly support the work. When you share materials with a new colleague or plan a new lesson with your professional learning community, you are providing catalysts to the work. Nourishers are actions that show respect or support. I still remember, 40 years later, a parent who periodically wrote notes commenting on class activities her son particularly enjoyed, or a display she’d noticed in the hall. I was more enthusiastic about my job for days afterward. We can do that for each other. How often do we take time to express admiration for a colleague’s work or celebrate with someone whose student showed improvement? Those small interactions really matter. They help us see the climbingtogethersmall “wins” that help us keep our creative motivation going.

Of course, those actions have their evil twins. Inhibitors are actions that actively inhibit the work, and toxins are discouraging or undermining events. Sadly, I suspect these are common enough I need not give examples. We may not be able to avoid the toxins in our environments, but we can resolve not to contribute to them. A friend who is a marriage counselor told me once that it takes 7 positive interactions in a relationship to counteract one negative one. I’m not sure if that’s true, but if it is, many schools have a serious positive interaction deficit among the staff! Either way, we know that when people are happier and feel appreciated, they are more likely to generate solutions to the problems they face. Amabile’s research supports this notion: In creative work, a positive and supportive environment is much more effective than high pressure or fear-based strategies of management.

I can just hear some of you out there saying, “Yes. Now tell that to my principal. Or superintendent. Or provost.” I know. Part of the reason I’ve talked to so many discouraged educators recently is because many educational environments in which we work are led in ways that contradict these findings. Fortunately, the Progress Principle tells us that small interactions and small victories can go a long way. We can be part of that progress by the ways we interact among ourselves.

Next time, I want to think about what this might look like for students. What do you think?


Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. J. (May, 2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review.

Mueller, J. S., Melwani, S., & Goncalo, J. A. (2012). The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas. Psychological Science, 23, 1, 13-17. doi: 10.1177/0956797611421018

2 thoughts on “The Progress Principle at School: One Day at a Time

  1. Pingback: The Progress Principle Comes to School (or Not) | creativiteach

  2. Pingback: Business Research Comes to School | creativiteach

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