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Are kids really motivated by technology?

3 min read


As a guy who delivers two-day #edtech workshops during my breaks from full-time classroom teaching, I’m often asked the same questions again and again: How can teachers use technology to motivate students? What digital tools do kids like best?

My answer often catches participants by surprise: You can’t motivate students with technology because technology alone isn’t motivating. Worse yet, students are almost always ambivalent toward digital tools. While you may be completely jazzed by the interactive whiteboard in your classroom or the wiki that you just whipped up, your kids could probably care less.

Need proof?

Early in my technology integration efforts, I set up a blog for my students, introduced it excitedly to every class, and proceeded to get exactly zero posts in the first two months of its existence despite my near-constant begging and pleading. If technology was inherently motivating, my students would have been completely consumed by our classroom blog, willingly writing and sharing their thoughts at all hours of the day, right?

But they weren’t, and my grand blogging experiment died before it ever really began.

The lesson I learned was a simple one: Technology, as Dina Strasser likes to say, is a motivational red herring. While kids may initially love technology-inspired lessons in schools simply because they are different from the paper-driven work that tends to define traditional classrooms, the novelty of new tools wears off a lot quicker than digital cheerleaders like to admit.

What students are really motivated by are opportunities to be social — to interact around challenging concepts in powerful conversations with their peers. They are motivated by issues connected to fairness and justice. They are motivated by the important people in their lives, by the opportunity to wrestle with the big ideas rolling around in their minds, and by the often-troubling changes they see happening in the world around them.

Technology’s role in today’s classroom, then, isn’t to motivate. It’s to give students opportunities to efficiently and effectively participate in motivating activities built around the individuals and ideas that matter to them.

Popular classroom tools such as VoiceThread don’t excite kids — but the kinds of content-driven, asynchronous conversations between peers that they enable, do. Websites such as Kiva aren’t motivating — but the real-world exposure to the impact of poverty on people in the developing world that they enable, is. Services such as Twitter are simple in-and-of themselves — but the opportunity to quickly sort and search for filtered resources connected to almost any topic matters to today’s learners.

Basically what I’m arguing is that finding ways to motivate students in our classrooms shouldn’t start with conversations about technology. Instead, it should start with conversations about our kids. What are they deeply moved by? What are they most interested in? What would surprise them? Challenge them? Leave them wondering? Once you have the answers to these questions — only after you have the answers to these questions — are you ready to make choices about the kinds of digital tools that are worth embracing.

Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) wears a ton of professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger and a senior fellow in the Teacher Leaders Network. He checks all of those titles at the door each morning, though, when he walks into his classroom.