Student motivation in a digital world

One of the most fundamental questions for teachers is: how do we help students become motivated?

My own thoughts on this question have reflected the transition from being a high school classroom teacher at a small, independent school called Harmony School, to being a Tech Coordinator at a large, high-power international school like UNIS.  When I was at Harmony, I and the other staff members tended to look for solutions to this problem in student choice, close teacher-student relationships, and self-directed learning experiences like Senior Projects.

Even at a small school like Harmony technology played a vital role, and that role is even more significant at UNIS.  The increasing prevalence of technology, along with the increased access at my new school, has led me to turn to technology to address the issue of student engagement in a way that is new for me.

I learned about the New Blooms Taxonomy last year, and the part of it that struck me the most was the shift to Creating as the highest level of education.  Back when Bloom was doing his research, I suspect that the main form of content creation on the part of students was writing papers.  This is still the basis for most assessment across the subject areas, but now it has exploded across boundaries into a multitude of new areas (websites, videos, slideshows, videogames, animations, screencasts, and others).

As I blogged about last week, one of the most significant consequences of the modern digital world is the availability of high quality tools to create original content.  This is the heart of the New Bloom’s Taxonomy, and it is also at the heart of the Digital Youth Project and their research on Hanging out, Messing Around, and Geeking out.  In the case of the Digital Youth Project, however, there is also a strong focus on the social dimension to this sort of behavior. In today’s world the face-to-face and digital relationships that people have are increasingly interwoven, necessitating a re-examination of the social implications of learning that is both face-to-face and digital.

The Digital Youth Project begins to do this in their white paper summary.  To summarize, they describe Hanging Out as a predominantly social process that extends physical relationships into a digital realm; they talk about Messing Around as a sort of tinkering in which kids pursue their own interests and passions by leveraging search tools, online information, and a virtual community that can help answer questions and move them forward; and they talk about Geeking Out as a highly focused and sustained effort on the part of an individual to learn about a specialized field, collaborate with other experts in that field, and possibly even turn that passion into a source of income.

Bringing these ideas back to UNIS is not a straightforward task, however.  There are many parents and teachers who are concerned, with some justification, about the amount of ‘screen-time’ a kid experiences in a day or a week.  Others voice concerns about kids who use the somewhat socially safer environment of a virtual world to avoid potentially difficult encounters in the real world.  If kids main experience is with the virtual social world, how are they to cope in the face-to-face world?  However, the opposite can be said as well, and many kids who have little experience in online etiquette often make glaring mistakes when first in these online environments.

Here are some of my conclusions:

  • There is a tremendous potential for harnessing the power of play in education, and since so many kids are playing with games, video, animation, etc, these are great avenues for kids to use their talents and interests to learn in and out of school
  • As adults, we need to be very careful that we don’t assume that what worked for us will work for kids today.  Their environment in different from the ones that we grew up in, and their ideas of balance and choice will probably look different from ours.
  • We need to look for ways to create more informal learning spaces; places where the reward for coming up with a great idea is not a grade or a gold star but rather the approval and respect of one’s community.  We must help kids find intrinsic meaning to their studies and learning so they take ownership of it, and so that they engage with it to a level that they can know the thrill of creating, collaborating, and problem-solving.