Games and grading III: Dan Pink and motivation

How can we know how to motivate students for different kinds of tasks?

One reason, perhaps the primary reason, that teachers explore connections between video games and education lies in their longing for students who display gamer-like motivation. What Shakespeare professor doesn’t want students as eager to construct Renaissance London as SimCity?

In his TEDTalk on motivation (a precursor to his recent book Drive), Dan Pink outlines some social scientific studies of motivation. Pink summarizes his argument in this short CNN piece:

In laboratory experiments and field studies, a band of psychologists, sociologists and economists have found that many carrot-and-stick motivators — the elements around which we build most of our businesses and many of our schools — can be effective, but that they work in only a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.

For enduring motivation, the science shows, a different approach is more effective. This approach draws not on our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but on what we might think of as our third drive: Our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

In particular, high performance — especially for the complex, conceptual tasks we’re increasingly doing on the job — depends far more on intrinsic motivators than on extrinsic ones.

If I want my students to focus on their own “complex, conceptual tasks,” I need to consider ways to activate their drive to “create new things,” and I want those things not only to be the occasional essay but also initiatives that shape the classroom experience fundamentally.

Games and Grading I: James Paul Gee

Reader, I’m slowly concocting a new way to teach introductory literary studies. Care to join me?

I haven’t posted for a while, in part because I set myself too large a task: to integrate a number of pieces I’ve been watching and reading lately into a big old essay on grading, video games, and inquiry-based learning (a big idea at Grinnell these days–more on that to come).

Instead, I hereby begin a series of shorter posts about the sources for that hypothetical essay. I’ll bring them together later.

I’ll start with this Edutopia interview with James Paul Gee: “Games, not Grades!”

Gee points out that video games are assessment machines, but they don’t alienate their players the way educational assessments alienate students because, Gee argues, games don’t separate learning from assessment.

I find this initial point powerful but too simple: many classroom environments do ties assessment to learning consistently, even if periodic larger assignments constitute the graded material. Gee seems implicitly to assume that and equivalence between assessment and grading.

My objection may be mostly semantic, however, so I’ll move on to what I see as Gee’s two most powerful insights:

1. Course textbooks ought to work like video game manuals, in that they should function as references that help students solve problems they have encountered in a process of exploration. I realize that in advanced seminars, I do teach students to use critical sources in this way, but I have not achieved the same effect in lower-level courses.

2. “Passion communities” such as those who produce fan fiction “tend to set very high standards” for their members, offering copious feedback to help new participants meet those standards.

As this series of posts continues, I will imagine ways in which college English courses might combine these two insights by creating “passion communities” that learn to navigate the texts of literary study with self-guided intensity.