In 2021, a freshman at Alpha High stopped taking math classes. She told her parents, “I’m not going to do math or science. I’m a writer. I’m going to write poetry.” A statement that might ordinarily cause parents to worry.
But Alpha is a school that prizes student ownership. Kids get to choose what they want to study – so when this student decided she was done taking math, the school let her make that choice.
She’d done well in her math classes up to this point – thanks to Alpha’s mastery-based approach, she’d aced Algebra I and II before she ever hit high school. But her entire freshman year, she ignored both math and science.
She studied literature. She wrote poetry. Her graphing calculator collected dust.
Then in her sophomore year, she decided she wanted to take Calculus BC. Her parents were surprised – they wanted to know what changed.
She told them, “I decided I want to go to Oxford to study in their writing program, and one of the things that will help with admissions is getting 5s on your math APs. I need the math credit to get into Oxford – and once I get a 5, I won’t have to do math ever again.”
She used apps like Knewton and Khan Academy to practice her calculus – and at the end of her sophomore year, she got a 5 on her AP test.
In 12 months, she went from being ambivalent about math to getting a perfect score.
The difference? Her motivation.
Once this student cared about math – because it was helping her attain a goal she deeply cared about – she was excited to go use technological tools like apps to practice, because it was helping her move towards an outcome she chose for herself.
The motivation came first, and the technology unleashed it.
No matter how good educational technology is, it will fail if you force kids to use it. But when kids are driven by their own motivation, technology can be used to learn independently – and often far faster than the concepts could ever be covered in a classroom.
Kids can learn anything they want through innovative tools enabled by technology – things like websites and apps, podcasts and YouTube and open-source courses.
But for them to work, you have to start with kids’ motivation.
Technology can change everything about education, but only if kids are motivated to use it
As entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant said: education is abundant, motivation is scarce.
The wide variety of innovative digital technologies designed for education (edtech) can completely change the future of education – but if kids aren’t motivated to use it, they’ll give up
A century ago schools and libraries had a monopoly on information, because knowledge was geographically located. You had to go where the books and archives and teachers were to be able to learn from them. We don’t have that access bottleneck anymore – information is everywhere and always available.
With the internet, we’ve taken the geographical element out of information. Our entire body of human knowledge can be accessed from any electronic device.
With a click of a button, you can get an entire mathematics education all the way through the college level from Khan Academy; read any book in the public domain on Project Gutenberg; watch MIT’s entire course library online; watch TED talks with experts in any subject from all over the globe.
Information is instantly accessible. But do kids find it meaningful?
To harness the incredible power of technological tools, we must first unlock kids’ motivation. The tools’ transformative potential relies on an understanding of kids’ own goals – which they choose for themselves – and adults who can help them identify tools to accomplish said goal.
Just making the tools available isn’t enough – kids are very rarely inspired to learn just because adults hand them something “educational,” “academic,” or “instructional.” Even the best designed app can’t hold a kid’s attention if the kid feels forced to use it.
To embrace learning from apps and self-directed courses, kids have to start with a goal in mind that they’re legitimately passionate about – I want to learn how to build a rocket – then find the tools that can help them move towards that goal (like Khan Academy’s physics course, or MIT’s open courses on engineering).
But because we’re so focused on educational standardization, and so unfocused on kids’ unique interests and desires, most kids never realize how all these resources can be helpful in pursuing their passions.
We end up with a world where information is everywhere, but most kids just aren’t motivated to access it.
Technology without motivation will fail
Without motivation, edtech won’t be successful. We’ve already seen it – schools have spent billions on education technology without any positive results. Parents buy education software for their kids that sits unused.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) make the world’s best teachers available to people all over the globe – but they have a completion rate of 3-6 percent. Students enrolled in the world’s largest online course sitewatch on average only 44 seconds of course content.
They can’t even make it through a minute.
In theory, technology has liberated education from its accessibility confines. Technology has advanced enough to where it can take the traditional classroom model entirely out of the equation.
But without coercion, you have to have motivation. Without the teacher there to play the role of cheerleader, coach, or policeman, pushing you to complete the work, students have to find the motivation within themselves.
Widely-accessible learning doesn’t just replace classroom-coerced education – it can easily exceed it. If the student is motivated, technology like apps and online courses can empower them to learn in a much more tailored manner than they would’ve been able to in school. Edtech gives them the freedom to:
- Learn much faster than they could in school (because they’re free to learn at their own pace, not slowed down by peers)
- Explore in a more tailored manner, in a way that’s relevant to their goals (because they aren’t beholden to what’s beneficial to the class at average)
- Retain more information (because apps use evidence-based techniques like spaced repetition to ensure comprehension and retention, on an individual level)
- Chase their interests and niche down on the topics that fascinate them (captivated by medieval literature? A kid can chase that trail as far as they’d like, with infinite resources at their fingertips).
But in order for kids to attain these benefits, they have to want to use the tools. That motivation occurs when kids understand the tools (and the benefits of using them) as tied to their existing goals.
As an example: imagine an elementary schooler who dreams of being a pro basketball player in the NBA. He’ll spend all day watching highlight reels of his favorite NBA stars – Lebron James and Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry – breaking down their moves, analyzing their play, watching them on repeat and in slow motion.
That’s exactly what Chase Taytum did when he was growing up – and he’s now the star of the Boston Celtics (and having YouTube highlights of his games analyzed by the next generation of up-and-coming players). He was willing to invest hours putting technology to work for him, because he had a dream he was obsessively trying to make come true.
Or imagine a student wants to take Beta Camp to build and launch an app. They go through the application guidelines and see they need to get a 5 on the Computer Science AP exam as a prerequisite to get in.
Of course they’re going to make a program like Codecademy(where they can learn programming online, for free) work for them. They’re motivated, because they have a goal to reach.
When kids build that motivation, edtech can set them up to move towards their goals far faster than the traditional classroom setting ever could.
With motivation and technology, kids have the whole world at their fingers
Cole Summers grew up in the Great Basin Desert in Utah, 50 miles from the nearest town.
At age 6, he started watching Warren Buffett videos on YouTube to learn how to make money. At age 11, his favorite publication was the Harvard Business Review. He used the internet to learn how to start and manage his own businesses – first a rabbitry, and then later a ranch. He learned how to set up an LLC and how to manage a holding company, all from researching online.
He was entirely self-taught, and at age 14 he wrote an autobiography about his unschooling story.
Millions of kids had the same technological access as Cole. Few had his motivation.
Cole was very clear on his goals: he wanted to make money, use that money to buy farmland, and use that farmland to establish regenerative ranching practices that could help save the desert where he lived – where the water table was shrinking at an alarming speed.
He had a clear end in mind – keeping his family’s farm habitable, even through drought – and everything he was studying tied to that goal.
Reading helped him do more research. Math helped him do financial calculations. Business courses helped him establish a strategy to move closer to his goals.
Because he had purpose, he didn’t need formal teachers to tell him what to do (which is part of the purpose school serves). He just needed access to the information he was already motivated to seek – which the internet has in spades.
As Naval said: “[It] seems that most true learning comes from self-motivation. In my humble opinion, teaching is overrated.”
But when a kid’s education is built around their intrinsic motivation (which should be a core part of every kid’s education anyway – finding your passion and purpose), technology can improve the way they learn in leaps and bounds – offering them the resources and information they need to get a faster and more tailored education, so they can chase their goals.