The motivation gap: doing something about it

It’s no secret that our systems for provoking learning – what we usually call education and training – have some serious problems. Some speak of an existential crisis. Most people recognize that if effective learning doesn’t always take place in spite of our efforts, lack of motivation, or at least of appropriate motivation, is a big part of it. Which is why many are tempted to turn to gamification as the solution. But we ought to be very careful with this. Motivation isn’t the simple desire for a reward or social recognition. We should start thinking at a deeper level.

One good place to start is simply to look at how we define the roles in the  “drama of learning”. In any context of training or teaching, there are two easily recognized roles and probably a few others that either aren’t recognized or are voluntarily left out of the picture. To simplify things and to remain consistent with the values of our materialistic society, I would suggest calling these recognized roles supplier and consumer. We have all sorts of names for the supplier: instructor, trainer, teacher, coach, facilitator, author, to name but a few. On the other side we have learner, student, participant, trainee, coachee and pupil. But the idea is clear in all cases: one is there in an ownership role to provide the content to the learner, the other to receive that content and do something with it. Put in those terms, if we can agree on that formulation, we should already notice a clue to what needs changing in our current models: “doing something with it” is potentially far more interesting than the usual practice of “proving you have retained – at least for a brief moment — what was formally taught” through some sort of test or control.

So what are the roles we fail to recognize? To start with, we can easily identify the institution behind the learning experience. It could be a corporate training department, and therefore the corporation itself, or it could be a school or university. We might even add parents, for schoolchildren, and bosses in the corporate world.  With a little effort, they are also recognizable and their influence on learning can be easily apprehended.

Social reality and learner motivation: much more than friends on Facebook

But there are yet other roles, ones that are rarely recognized and that may turn out to be even more important. I’m thinking in particular of peer groups and society as a whole. Beyond that, there are also the various communities, real or virtual, that we identify with consciously and unconsciously. For example, a teenager at school may have classes, friends and family, but may also have the ambition – realistic or fantasized – of becoming a musician, actor, boxer, chess master, painter, gang leader or gymnast. This creates a space of identification that may be either public (shared with others) or private (the “fire within”). When a learner identifies with a group defined by its skills and cultural role, this becomes a factor in any learning process.

Why should we care since these factors of identification that we are often aware of but which we consider to be peripheral and largely irrelevant? Simply because they are potential factors of motivation that can, in the right circumstances, be mobilized to accelerate and deepen learning. Our institutions don’t like to waste time on these unmanageable “personal things” and since we don’t like anything that isn’t “manageable”, we do everything we can to leave them in the hall locker or at the classroom door. That is, by the way, an eminently rational choice, far more efficient than the idea sometimes encouraged of getting everyone to “express themselves and share their interests with the others”.

So the choice has been made. It’s what the system wants. The fire within may be what most guides a learner’s personal plan for success in adapting to the social and economic environment, but it can’t be exploited in a context of learning.

Or can it?

I maintain that it can, so long as it isn’t identified as the issue. To do this, we need to encourage a positive climate for creativity focused on seeking to realize socially coherent goals that have their own logic. Passing a test has no social logic. If anything it has an antisocial effect, pitting all learners one against another. Building something that makes sense only in the classroom or training room is a step forward. It could be a science project or a business game, with a discernible and analyzable outcome. But it also risks being seen and felt as an artificial and ephemeral event. And in terms of motivation, it is often only the “leaders” – those who have the most social clout, the strongest personality or particular knowledge of the domain — who put enough effort in to get something out of the experience.

Multi-level motivation

When we began building Chatscaper as a fun way of creating meaningful sequences of dialogue or stories in the form of an open-ended game thanks to the contribution of an entire group of learners, we saw it as another somewhat different type of group project, like a business game. It gets the learners involved in a process that becomes more and more complex, demonstrating principles through unexpected outcomes. But it quickly became evident that what was being produced was a game object that other people could actually use. It might therefore have meaning even after the end of the course or seminar. Moreover, as a non-linear game – with the open logic of an adventure game or certain video games – it should have entertainment value, i.e. it aims at motivating other people to use it, on the condition that it contains the right psychological and aesthetic qualities.

To do that requires looking into what motivates the people that might end up using it, which means that we are going beyond the motivation to learn and working on several different levels:

  • The motivation to have enough mastery of the subject matter to produce something coherent (as in a traditional science project)
  • The motivation to motivate others, and therefore to think about what is important as well as what is effective.
  • The motivation to finalize a project rather than just finish it.
  • The motivation to understand what is interesting, both for the producers and the eventual users.

This means thinking about motivation in depth and actually mobilizing it for the learners because it has a meaning beyond that of provoking learning. It also means appealing to different types of talents that may correspond to elements of the fire within for certain learners. Because there are various kinds of actions to do along the way – imagine a context, create the drama, write the text, record the dialogue or narrative, possibly invent the avatars and create them visually – it allows the variety of hidden talents in the group to contribute to the final quality of the product.

That is why we have insisted on making it possible to publish, share and even propose for sale the productions that learners may have contributed to or entirely build themselves. Instead of being consumers of learning, they become suppliers of the learning they themselves are engaged in.

Finally, what can be more motivating for the traditional suppliers – trainers and teachers – than a framework for guiding learners to become the creators of their own learning? To succeed, they will need help and guidance; they will need to do their research, critique and test their own production, self-organize as a production unit, define and redefine their own goals, with the continual assistance and guidance of the trainer.

It means one more thing that is often neglected in our traditional learning programs: the actual work involves formulation and reformulation, clarity of thought and expression with regard to the content, assessment of logical connections and transitions.

Chatscaper is just one tool among others, but we believe it can provide a unique service especially on the level of motivation.


About pisackson

The cosmos is non-linear. Sub-atomic physical reality is non-linear. Our lives are non-linear. We are persuaded by well-intentioned guides, politicians and teachers to believe otherwise, but my mission is to help people discover the joy of non-linear thinking and acting, otherwise known as...creativity.
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