Creating the Need to Know

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

What motivates someone to learn?

On another website, I wrote about how online learning can function to break down some serious fear-based barriers to learning. So let me say up front, I believe there are at least two steps to creating motivation to learn. The first is to address these fear barriers; and online learning, if done well, has the ability to help with this. Some of the most common fears and a happy response from an online student:

Fear 1. I’m not quick off the mark when a teacher asks a question.
Online student: No one can watch me try to think!

Fear 2. I don’t always manage to say what I mean.
Online student: I can try my words out in private before I post them.

Fear 3. My ideas are complicated and I’m afraid of being misunderstood.
Online student: I can try out new ideas in a safe place.

Fear 4. When I respond in class I sometimes end up feeling like I needed a dress rehearsal!
Online student: I can practice alone in front of my mirror.

Fear 5. I hate how people seem to expect me to respond in a certain way because of how I look or how they see “people like me.”
Online student: I get to choose how much I let people know about me, so I don’t feel “prejudged.”

The second factor, given that learners have overcome the first hurdle, is whether the learner feels a strong need to know something. Educators have argued for years about student “motivation” and I would broaden that to actually talk about the human motivation to learn. We are all students, all the time. We put young people and adults who want professional skills in the category of students and we send them to something called a school. Whether they are studying the alphabet or electrical wiring or legal procedure, they are in school. Progressive educators would argue that older studentsfreire175 who have chosen to acquire professional skills have an edge over younger students because they are motivated to learn information and they have sought an appropriate environment in which to learn it.

Paolo Freiere, the Brazilian educator, said that there exist two primary forms of education: the banking model and the problem-posing model. The banking model is the traditional school process. Students are “given” information by an instructor, which they then memorize or “bank” in their brains for future use. Maybe. John Dewey’s addition to this model was that students then also needed an “experience” that would allow them to use what they had banked, incorporate it into their experiential worlds. Dewey knew (in the words of a professor of mine during the sixties as he observedjohn_dewey2we-students-who-would-try-anything) “There are some experiences that are not worth having.” Dewey said it differently: in order for an experience to be educational, it had to be carefully planned with that goal in mind.

The problem-posing model relies on the student’s motivation. I must (or I want to) do something and I don’t know how, so I will find resources and learn how to solve this problem. In this model the student is the initiator, the instructor, the learner, and the evaluator. Is there room for a guide or instructor in this model of education? Surely, but it is not the role of a traditional teacher. In this model, students are the creators of knowledge as well as the consumers of knowledge and their satisfaction with what they have learned is the outcome measurement. The teacher can help frame the problem, suggest areas for research, suggest resources, and ask questions.

My suggestion that online learning has an edge in creating problem-posing models of education for learners is not new or original. On the issue of technology as a tool learners can use themselves, there is an impressive literature that has already developed and a number of websites. One blog this week (May 19) asked, “Are your e-learning courses pushed or pulled?” In other words, are the courses you design pushing information out to “learners” or are you offering an interactive design that will encourage learners to pull the content they need out of the resources you have provided. Another e-learning site offers the image of technology as a toolbox, a set of tools with which people can build and manage their own learning.


But how does this help create motivation? How can technology create a “need to know” in learners?

At the most basic level, we have technologies that engage learners, that draw them into a dialogue, a relationship, a community (or a tribe, as Seth Godin would put it). But those technologies don’t function by themselves. They are part of a package. Course design is the key. What questions will matter to the people who are coming into your course?

One of my students in an online college program was trying to create a literature study for herself. She lives in Texas and has two small children. At some point in our early interaction, she mentioned how fascinated she had been by the story of the Texas woman who had killed her five children. And how appalled she was at her own fascination. That was her question—why would a woman kill her children? Couldn’t she study that issue in a traditional classroom? Sure, and I would assign Euripides’ Medea and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and George Eliot’s Adam Bede, all great literature in which a woman kills at least one of her own children. What does the web offer that the classroom does not?

Look back at my first paragraph in this article. Not sure how to say it? Not sure how it will be received? Maybe a classroom in a small town in Texas would not be the place to explore this topic in front of friends and neighbors?

So there is the protection of a certain amount of anonymity in looking for answers to this difficult kind of question. But there is more. I have not searched this topic, but I am sure there are websites, chat rooms, historical archives, legal briefs from the cases themselves. Do we want to know more about Margaret Garner who was the historical figure Toni Morrison drew on? The Ohio historical society has an entry that will be useful. The Kentucky Archaeological Society has devoted part of a website to the farm in Kentucky that Garner escaped from with her children as a slave seeking freedom. Photographs of her slave hut, interior and exterior, are available. For the student, there is the allure of the search for accurate details, for motivation. The question belongs to my student. I am not her teacher. I am her guide, pointing her in the right direction occasionally, suggesting ways in which she can determine whether a website is credible and sound or biased and not useful.

And then she returns to her study cohort, all of whom have been asking their own questions, and she needs to describe her journey. She does, creating timelines and a history that starts with the Greeks of Euripides’ time and comes forward to a Texas murder trial in the twenty-first century. She has worked with these other students for several months now, and they are important community to her—she is motivated by the relationship that has grown among them.

What I am struck by over and over as I teach students online is the level of possibility. Would Paolo Freire have found the internet a companion or a burden?  I can only wonder. But for many, it has opened worlds beyond the ones they were born into.

13 Responses

  1. Judith, thanks for posting this intriguing article that challenges us to explore and discover ways to get to the heart of learning — motivation.

    The web is like a candy store with a zillion different choices, and teachers quickly realize that they’re no longer limited to the research topics offered in the class textbook. What this means is that we’re finally able to actually test the mantra that motivation is the key to learning.

    Students can, in a matter of minutes, google topics that interest and excite them. In fact, in a blended classroom, the teacher could invite them to begin the search process as she/he presents the assignment. Students could then ask questions about the suitability of specific topics, and the instructor could ask the class to log into specific sites to share in the exploration, analysis, and discussion.

    This ability to transcend the walls of the traditional classroom is like magic. Click the power button and, presto!, we have a window into the world as it is in real-time — with a cumulative log of all that’s receding into the past.

    Furthermore, Web 2.0 is like a gigantic wiki and forum that’s accessible to everyone at any time from anywhere, providing a means for a person to theoretically interact with anyone and everyone on the planet, 24-7.

    And it gives everyone the power to not only view what others have to say but to publish as well, to become active participants in ongoing discussions. And, as you say, the medium is far less threatening than a F2F classroom and, thus, encourages open communication.

    When students can easily explore and select topics that mean something to them at a very personal level, motivation is a given and learning is personally rewarding and enjoyable. I guess it’s the difference between a hobby and a job. One is driven by pleasure, and the other by necessity. In this case, pleasure always wins.

  2. A rich and provocative catalog of ideas, Judith.

    I’d like to think with you and others about your reference to Dewey, one of my heroes, and his notion, echoed by one of your colleagues, that some experiences aren’t worth having. Dewey himself spoke of some experiences as “miseducative.”

    It seems to me that those of us interested in “ee-learning”– the bring together of (e)xperiential and (e)lectronic learning –need to look closely at this Dewey thesis.

    So counterproposition: all experiences, sad, glad,bad, good, are what we must endure, and all experiences can be opportunities for learning.

    So: how do we create the kind of online communities that allow for the sharing of experience, so that fellow students and their lives become visible to us despite our separation in space and time? And: how can we help students use what we are teaching them to look at their current experiences in new and deeper ways?

    Divorce: a “miseducative” experience? A dull and unrewarding job–or joblessness: do we ignore these experiences of our students, or allow them to become focii of study and meaning?

    For youngsters in the classroom Dewey envisioned a pedagogy that would allow the teacher to design the “experiences” students would have.

    In our online world our students are having “experiences” every day, every night. Can these experiences become a piece of the curriculum?

    • And then it was T.S. Eliot, not Dewey (but same general time period) who opined that most of us “had the experience but missed the meaning.” I think your examples of miseducative experiences are important, Steve, since almost any experience can become educational if we don’t miss the meaning. I don’t advocate having negative experiences for their growth potential, I hasten to add. But I know from personal experience that one way I learn and grow and change is to be dragged kicking and screaming through an experience I did not choose.

      Hmm. Don’t ask me for examples.

      Thinking about the other issue you raise–creating those online communities that will allow the sharing that accompanies growth–that has always been an enormous challenge to me as a teacher. It involves creating a safe space (sorry for the jargon) and I have always seen that as one major part of my job. It doesn’t mean that we don’t challenge and (even) confront as well as encourage and reward, but I am finding it harder and harder to do, especially in my face to face classes.

      I wonder what your experience of that has been?

      • Judith, why, do you think, is it getting “harder and harder to do,” [create communities of dialog] and why is it harder to do in face-to -ace classes?

        Is there something emerging in the culture of the college that works against discussion, dialog, collaboration?

        And: I find myself wanting to get from you the exact T.S. Eliot quote, if you can find it: on having the experience but missing the meaning.

        Perhaps the recent emphasis on “everyday life” as the focus of instruction is a reaction against the notion that the “experiences” we need to look at with and through the disciplines need to be remote, exotic: in another culture, perhaps.

        The “everyday life” movement is saying–perhaps–that making soup and washing the dishes is a set of experiences as worthy of close attention as a journey to Africa (or, if you’re African, a journey to the U.S.)

        Anthropology, sociology, and literary study ought to be giving our students new tools for looking at the kitchen and the soup and the cleaning up and finding new and important meanings in the experiences.

        (As you can tell, I haven’t yet seen clearly whatever it is I’m trying to see with these comments. But perhaps one piece of the answer to your question is that we have to learn how to encourage students to put out and be willing to explore their hazy, tentative, unresolved experiences.)

      • T.S. Eliot first–that line is from The Four Quartets, from my least favorite of the four, in some ways, the third–The Dry Salvages:

        The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
        Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
        Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
        We had the experience but missed the meaning,
        And approach to the meaning restores the experience
        In a different form, beyond any meaning
        We can assign to happiness.

        I like very much the thought in its entirety and believe this has something to do with what Dewey was trying for–the sense that when we begin to think about the meaning, the experience is “restored” (learned?) in a different form.

        Why is it harder to create a safe space in face-to-face classes? I don’t know why, but I feel it. My students seem more vulnerable to me. I’ll need to mull this one over a bit.

  3. Steve, I was searching for a line or two to quote and comment on — but I found myself highlighting one line after another until I had your entire comment selected. It’s funny how we keep circling back to certain core concepts, e.g., ee-learning (was it in Technology Source that you first brought it to our attention?), that exert a powerful gravitational pull in dialogues that probe the virtual landscape.

    I guess it’s a way to remind us that, through the web, we can engage much more of the student than we ever thought possible. We’re no longer limited to that physical presence in our classroom, sitting in the second row, third seat from the left. With our new technology, we can interact with her/him in different locations and environments, in an infinite variety of roles, in different media, in synch or async mode.

    As you say, we now have the power to engage the whole student in all her chosen manifestations. The word “student,” in this vast context, seems woefully inadequate as a label for this person.

    You and Judith have posed thoughts that are forcing me to take a step back, and then some, to try to take in the enormity of implications. I’ll be popping back into this discussion after I’ve had a chance to engage in that most satisfying of activities — mulling.

  4. “Mulling”: what a great word, Jim, and a great pedagogical notion.

    We should be teaching students to “mull.”

    One of the advantages of asynchronous communication is that it builds mulling time into the conversation.

  5. Judith has put her finger on the essence of education. It’s really about asking students the right questions rather than giving them the right answers.

    When properly challenged, every person becomes a student and seeks to learn. Of course, you can’t expect the same challenge to work for 35 disparate individuals in a given classroom. There’s the rub for the teacher.

    Additionally, less experienced learners must have guidance as they seek to learn. Teachers must have more than the usual background if they’re to support this sort of learning.

    Although I have been working to provide tools to help this style of learning take place in science classrooms, I have left the challenging to the teachers. I’d love to be able to expand my SaaS science lab learning software to do the challenges as well. I just haven’t figured out an efficient (in both programming and pedagogy) way to match the challenge to the student.

    • Harry–that is a challenge, and I don’t know a thing about programming. But in my Science, Gender and Race class (which I am in the process of rebuilding into an online course that starts in July), I am trying to find a way to challenge those 25 individuals “where they are.” I’m offering 6 topics for group research and they can choose one that “speaks” to them. When I taught this class face to face, the topic that was most immediately gripping to about a dozen of the undergraduate women was the debate about the HPV vaccine. They weren’t particularly interested in the political issues (would it “encourage” more teen sex), but rather did outstanding research on what the known and potential side effects of the vaccine might be. I was impressed with the range of research they reviewed and with their impariallity as they reviewed it. When I thought more about it, it seemed to me that because this could potentially be a life and death matter for some of them, they needed to “get it right.”

      So I’m not sure as I take this online that I will be able to match the challenge to every student, but I hope to be able to offer sufficient direction for each student to find something that matters to him or her.

  6. Judith,

    (Some messages here have “Reply” after them, some don’t. Is there a secret to this, Jim?)

    The T.S. Eliot stanza is a gift: I need it for my work and theorising!

    The “disciplines” ought to be torches providing light for those sudden illuminations that give meaning to experience–including the ordinary and commonplace experiences that usually pass unnoticed and unremarked as we search for the exotic and the new.

    The sudden illumination that gives new meaning to a good dinner, for example.

    Dewey indeed was writing about the aesthetics of experience, or the finding the shape and the form and the meaning of the everyday and the routine.

    How do we help our students see that the disciplines–including the poetry of T.S. Eliot–are not to be approached as museum pieces that we admire only for their grace and antiquity but as equipment for living?

  7. Hi, Steve. Good question re the “Reply” that’s attached to posts. On the one hand, if you click on it, your reply will append to the target message, creating a subthread. Thus, it may not appear as the last message in the original thread. On the other, if you compose your comment in the “Leave a Reply” box, it becomes the last entry in the original thread. Subthreads are indented, as in an outline, so you can visually follow them.

    Added: Steve, I’d suggest ignoring the “Reply” attached to the bottom of comments and using the “Leave a Reply” box at the end of the discussion. This way, the latest replies are always at the bottom. This would mean adding a brief note to indicate which message you’re replying to. In most cases, simply addressing the writer of the post you’re respondiong to might suffice.

  8. Thanks, Jim.

    Small puzzle: Judith’s comment to me on May 27th does not have a “reply” beneath it. How come?


    • Hi, Steve. Good question. I guess WordPress allows only a single subthread level. This means that this reply won’t have a “Reply” button. To add to this subthread, the next writer will need to click on the “Reply” in your message — the opening message in this subthread. And her/his reply will follow this comment.

      Added 6.2.09: Steve — I’ve sent you my other replies to this “puzzle” via email.

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