Evoking Motivation in Youth: A New Culture of Learning

Mizuko Ito tweeted about a book a while ago, and since her past work leads me to think she’s super smart and to be heeded when she praises a book, I bought it. A thoughtful post by Adam Copeland reminded me of it last week.

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown is a terrific little read, deceptively difficult given its slim 115 page figure. Thomas is a Communications Professor at USC, where Brown is a visiting scholar.

The book succinctly describes the media landscape that students inhabit today. That landscape is characterized by constant change and “a massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything.” The new culture of learning in that environment needs to allow for “unlimited agency [for students] to build and experiment with things” within given boundaries and structures.

It’s a compelling case, and it raises a number of questions for those of us doing ministry with adolescents in churches. The first of those questions has to do with motivation.

Brown and Thomas narrate a number of stories that involve students learning in a way that takes advantage of the massive information network through a deeply personal motivation to learn something, practice something, explore something. So Sam, a nine year-old, learns computer programming by participating in an online Scratch community. Students in a college course about Massively Multiplayer Online Games hijack the lectures to dissect what’s actually happening as they play these games outside of class. A freelance hacker learns all kinds of programming by experimenting with his own programs and using Google to figure out how to improve them when they crash.

In each of these cases, the learner brings a deeply personal motivation to the task of learning. Therein lies my problem.

I don’t know what motivates the adolescents I work with here at the church. The ones who come to a weekly youth group do so why? What do they want to learn? What do they want to master? What do they want to change about themselves and the world? Those motivations are in there, but I’m afraid I don’t know how to get them out. Instead, I bring a curriculum on something I think is important for them to know.

How do those of us who lead students in church settings draw out what motivates them–not just what motivates them to come to church, but what motivates them in life–so that we can help them build and experiment with the massive information network at their disposal to be more faithful people?

It seems to me that the annual flip chart exercise about “what do you want to talk about” doesn’t go nearly far enough. I need some more concrete ways to hear and observe what’s driving my students.

Any ideas?

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