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?

13 thoughts on “Evoking Motivation in Youth: A New Culture of Learning

  1. I have to say, this is a good question I have often pondered. The motivations seem to change on the surface every decade or so. But I wonder if the motivations under the surface remain the same: to “belong” to something, be a part of something larger than me, to discover who I am (both in relation to other people like family and friends, but also who am I apart from them). Though, I’m not sure these motivations/questions are particular only to adolescence.

  2. Eric, this is tripping me up too. I’m suspicious about the verbs “belong” and “discover who I am” as motives for learning. Thomas and Brown describe motives like “figure out” and “fix,” and I’m sure my kids have stuff they’d like to figure out and fix.

    How about this: there’s a difference between a developmental need (belong) and a motivation.

    Is that a helpful starting point?

  3. I have been teaching middle school students this year as well. They don’t always seem to be paying attention. They are learning, but most of it isn’t from me.

    I do believe that age 12 (give or take a year) is prime time identity formation. They are learning who they are, and what others think of them. I am glad that Christianity is a part of their identity. Barna says the odds are highly stacked against a person identifying as a Christian after age 16 – if they weren’t introduced prior to that age.

    The age 12 thing – this is my own understanding from talking with folks in college dorms and in institutional settings. Those living an alternative lifestyle can generally point to an event at age 12, or say they have known they were this way since age 12. How we understand ourselves at age 12 is likely how we will basically understand ourselves at age 24 and 48, etc.

    Am I loved? Does anyone care that I have these thoughts? What is possible for me? Will I be like my parents when I am their age? (Divorced, married, stable, avoiding family, loving family, etc?)

    What’s their motivation? Quite possibly to find out who they are and whom they can aspire to be/become.

  4. Thanks for pointing me to A Wee Blether once again. I used to read Adam’s blog when he was in seminary. I thought it was still in my reader, but I hadn’t read the recent posts…

  5. I’m intrigued…so I purchased the book.

    In response to your post, I don’t think that youth are motivated to come to church by learning at all. I think they are motivated by a sense of community–particularly a community that exists beyond the bounds of their other social networks.

    I also think they are motivated by a desire to make a difference in the world, which is why we’re thinking through how we transition from a primarily educational paradigm (which comes most naturally to me) to a more missional paradigm.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still think learning happens. But I don’t think we can ever hope to motivate youth by talking about what they might learn at church.

    One other motivation: our youth are dealing with some big stuff–illness, death, world issues, etc. I think they are motivated to come think about these things in the context of faith.

    As for how to discern motivations: we need to spend time building relationships with youth so that we can get some insight into this. Both superficial and deeper exchanges with youth reveal a lot about what they are interested in. Scanning their Facebook walls from time to time is also helpful.

    1. I’m totally with you on this. In engaging in world-changing stuff, they’re learning. I think the whole “collective,” self-guided learning paradigm is action-oriented to the core.

  6. I’ve been pondering my response to this – and some of your other posts here – for awhile. You ask about motivation – why teens participate in youth group. I think there’s not one answer to that question. One comes because he likes a girl who’s there, another because her friend attends, a third because it’s an expectation of his family, and a fourth because she’s looking for something she can’t even articulate to herself. I do think that what we offer them and how we offer it can allow other motivations to develop, which again may be different for each individual, and which may allow each to grow in different ways.

    I wasn’t able to attend any of our spring Sunday morning discussions of Kenda Dean’s book, Almost Christian, so I’ve been reading it on my own. One finding of the study she discusses is adolescents’ lack of language to think and talk about Jesus, Christianity, faith, and mission. I think one of the important things we have to offer teens in youth group is the opportunity to hear, discuss, and ask questions – about Scripture, confessional documents, and the variety of Christian faith practices. I’m not as concerned about their access through technology as that they have a time and a safe place (perhaps the most difficult criterion to provide) to participate in such conversations using a language that is ultimately important but may be foreign to them.

    1. Gale, thanks for this. That we’re giving youth “a safe place . . . to participate in . . . conversations using a language that is ultimately important but that may be foreign to them” is indeed critical. I hope we’re doing that.

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