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Six Powerful Motivations Driving Social Learning By Teens

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By David Price

Along with Google search, Wikipedia has become the first point of reference for most of us. Wikipedia’s first incarnation, Nupedia, relied upon the authority of academic experts to provide quality control for Jimmy Wales’ first attempt at an online encyclopedia. After months of peer-review, only a handful of articles had appeared on Nupedia. Wales decision to ‘go open’ not only allowed Wikipedia to flourish, it led to the emergence of the "pro-am" (an amateur who possesses professional levels of expertise). The initial academic concerns over the reliability of information in Wikipedia articles have now largely dissipated, assuaged by an army of volunteers, who correct over half the cases of "vandalism" in less than four minutes. It is a powerful example of a self-correcting organism. The story of Nupedia and Wikipedia points to a profound shift in the direction in which knowledge travels. Until relatively recently, knowledge only ever trickled down. Now it spreads laterally. At least, it does in the social space. In formal centers of learning, old habits die hard.

The tension between open, social learning and the formal, enclosed variety is becoming untenable. Today’s students often have more computing power in their pockets, on their mobile phones, than the PCs in the outdated computer lab–-but they are usually prevented from using it. The students’ personal learning networks of friends, forum users, Twitter followers and Facebook friends provide a rich source of knowledge gathering when they are at home, but use of such networks is excluded from their classrooms. It is little wonder that teachers experience immense frustration in trying to keep their students’ attention.

In order to see a rise in the proportion of students who class themselves as engaged in school, we must build a better understanding of how they are learning outside school and take account of that in our learning and teaching practice. There are (at least) six powerful motivations fueling learning socially. I call them the Six "Do-Its" and explain them as follows.

Clay Shirky (Shirky, 2008) identified the rise in mass online collaboration, speculating that, in the future, such collaboration would extend from "knowing about" into "taking action." He did not have long to wait. Organizations like Ushahidi use open source technologies to bring little-known social and political issues to a global audience. They are "working towards a world where open, effective and participatory governance is the norm, not the exception." Such intermediaries are democratizing learning by removing entry barriers and making it active and empowering.


The immediacy that is seen when Tweets or videos go viral is both motivating and reinforcing. It turns out there's a scientific reason. The reward of dopamine release, observed in immediate responses to social media requests, helps "stamp in" memories and increase motivation. Early childhood education expert Lilian Katz has long argued that learning which has immediacy, solving problems just-in-time, has "horizontal relevance." Katz suggests that this kind of learning is more motivating than its opposite – "vertical relevance" (just-in-case). Katz’s assertions, made before the advent of social media, are even more applicable today, given the style of learning that dominates in the social space.

The ability to choose our collaborators is a key freedom hallmarking social learning. Personal learning communities are built upon collegiality and fluidity, with groups coming together around their personal passions and professional interests. Such freedoms are all but absent in most schools.

Projects, forums and social movements are often marked by a sense of playfulness. Fun alone, however, is insufficient to maintain a learning community. "Serious gaming" has flourished because it combines enjoyment with challenge--what Seymour Papert calls "hard fun"-–in the pursuit of purposeful activity.

The technological vehicles for social learning are morally neutral, merely reflecting the values and actions of the participants. Inevitably, much is made of the malevolent use of social media in the mainstream media: cyberbullying, youth radicalization, trolling and the like. However, mainstream media rarely report the million random acts of kindness that occur on forums, media aggregators and knowledge sharing sites. Relatively little is heard of organizations like, a global movement of 3.3 million young people dedicated to "making the world suck less." Their members have recycled 4.3 million pairs of jeans for young homeless people, collected mobile/cell phones for domestic violence survivors, baked cakes for infants in Syria, hosted dance classes for seniors (anyone over 25 is officially "old" on DoSomething). Weren’t the Millennials supposed to be the ‘Me Me Me Generation’?

Perhaps this is the most contestable of the six motivations of social learning, due to the number of young people who do, or say, stupid things without thinking of the consequences of highly public sharing. Their numbers are only exceeded by the number of adults who say or do even stupider things. The pressures of keeping students safe frequently overwhelms the benefits of authentic public assessment of their work. Most societies teach their children to cross the road safely; we do not ban cars--yet that seems to be the equivalent strategy when it comes to digital safety. As a result, the contrast between the strictly enclosed audience for student work in school, with the open, global audience their work enjoys when they are at home, inevitably makes school work seem dull by comparison.

It is not hard to see that these "Do-Its" appear far more frequently in social, informal learning than they do in our schools and colleges. This goes some way to explaining the rise of disengagement in school, and presents unenviable challenges for teachers. Yet schools who have opened their learning environments and integrated these motivations into their learning programs are not only enhancing engagement--they are preparing their students for the adaptive, entrepreneurial future that awaits them. In short, they have realised that the best way to prepare young people for the world beyond school is to immerse them in the world beyond school, as often as possible.


David Price is an author, learning futurist and senior associate at the Innovation Unit in London, England. His new book is OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live And Learn In The Future is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidPriceOBE.