Are Kids Really Motivated by Technology? (Bill Ferriter)

Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) is a full-time elementary school teacher. He is also a Solution Tree author and presenter,a frequent blogger and a senior fellow in the Teacher Leaders Network. His commentary appeared in SmartBlogs on Education on August 17th, 2012

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.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

19 responses to “Are Kids Really Motivated by Technology? (Bill Ferriter)

  1. Larry, another great post from your guest blogger.

    I have long believed that technology in and of itself couldn’t possibly revolutionize learning results, since technology is just a tool. And like any tool, for it to have an impact on students’ learning it needs to be used expertly in the hands of a dedicated, caring, knowledgeable, passionate teacher.

    I remember a kit of flashcards and filmstrips I found in a classroom in the 1970s, that were obviously designed to be “teacher-proof”, since they came with a word-for-word script for the teacher to read to students. No doubt the kit was sold with the promise that it would change how well students would learn social studies.

    Bill has done a great job of highlighting the need to really connect with students (without technology) to find out what truly motivates them, then look for the right tools to take advantage of students’ interests and energy. Well done!

  2. larrycuban

    Thanks, Peter, for the comment.

  3. Pingback: Are Kids Really Motivated by Technology? (Bill Ferriter) @Larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! |

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  5. Bob Calder

    Just as there are a variety of learners, there are a variety of levels that learners engage with technology. This confuses teachers and administrators that view students as homogenous.

    People often forget the history of information theory as well as Turing and the Universal Machine. While there is no way to predict how a student will react to a hammer on her desk, we can arrange it with brads and parts of a birdhouse to suggest how the hammer is useful.

    Some of my students took to blogging quickly, others more slowly, but the majority were adamantly opposed to exposing their perceived inadequacies for the universe to boggle at. Their comfort level could be described by Face Book’s carefully crafted social limits.

    A problem viewed from different sides yields different answers.

    I don’t need any of the hundreds of crappy vertical learning applications my district spends literally millions on, nor do I need the walled garden Gulag Internet where they wander aimlessly. The killer app I need is a confidence builder.

  6. n2teaching

    From years, I’m in agreement. Thanks for reinforcing that knowledge. I love technology, yet kids often see using it as a chore….until they see cool products. THAT HELPS.

  7. Gary Ravani

    I don’t find this surprising at all. A number of years ago my (former) district announced plans to move forward with a “Hi Tech High” concept in collaboration with local business people. The district was located in what came to be called Telecom Valley.

    I taught at a middle school that had de facto “tracking” in place, that is, certain students had an “advanced” math class, foreign language, and band which was half the day and did not allow for much in the way of heterogeneous grouping after that. Basically the same group of kids were together for almost the entire day.

    That gave me one English class that was “college prep.” Those kids came from homes with parents working in the tech sector as well as many working at the nearby Lucas films facility. When I learned of the Tech High proposal I gave the kids an assignment of writing about their high school ambitions and whether the Tech aspect would be an appealing option.

    Not only did the majority of kids find it not “appealing,” they were almost venomous in their dislike of anything that smacked of technology. I was actually shocked, being a “non-techy adult,” at this response. It appears being immersed in the tech world via their home life had not endeared them to the world of computerized bliss.

    Teachers, at the regular high schools also objected that all/most of the best math/science kids would be drawn away from the comprehensive schools. Looking back I don’t think they had to worry that much. Of course, the kids may have changed their minds and also, of course, parent pressure may have played a role.

    With recessionary forces and the fading of tech the funding and enthusiasm for the project dissipated.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the story of what occurred in a former district, Gary. I am sure there is variation among the population you describe, just as such variation existed among the students Bill described in his class.

  8. Hi Larry and thanks Bill….I wonder if you have heard of “quadblogging” started by a young deputy head teacher in a Bolton Primary school here in North West England….not sure what part the technology plays in the motivation of the pupils but I can testify that it does motivate them!

    PS Didnt make it to Stanford this year Larry but hope to catch up next year…best wishes…

    PPS Kieran had his induction at Leicester University today…reading History 🙂

  9. larrycuban

    Thanks, Bob, for the news about Kieran and the form of blogging about which I knew nothing.

  10. John Hobson

    I just gave a talk to our staff which almost said the same thoughts. There’s still far to much of the iPad really motivates the kids stuff about. Very little about how changing your teaching methods will really motivate them.

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  12. Technology used properly in the classroom can be highly motivational. The teacher has to know what she/he is doing and has to really think hard about how this is achieving certain goals. Of course, you also have to have access to the technology. This YouTube video is a testament to this:

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cathy, for the YouTube piece on this teacher. He has certainly integrated technology into his daily lessons and weekly units.

  13. Pingback: Are Kids Really Motivated by Technology? (Bill Ferriter) | Accomplished California Teachers Education News |

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