Curiosity is Key: How to Inspire Kids to Engage in Their Education with Kevin Bell

“My students aren’t engaging with my materials because, well that’s what they do, or don’t do. What’s the golden (tech) bullet to engage my students? Artificial Intelligence?, The Internet of Things?, Blockchain?, Next Generation LMS-s?, Virtual Reality?, Augmented Reality?” – (head explodes)…

All of the above are viable technologies worthy of our attention and exploration. One or more of them may even radically affect higher education. It’s also certain that one or more of them will take a humbled seat on the bench alongside Second Life, QR codes and MySpace; the hope of relaunch as a cool retro / Old School tool their only solace.

Effective technology, digital content or new means of tech facilitated interactivity can accentuate good teaching and a good student experience. The key word in that sentence though; definitely “accentuate.” In 25 years in higher ed, while I have never seen poor teaching made good by virtue of a flicked switch, I have seen many lame implementations that started with the phrase, “just show me which button to press.” A frighteningly frequent conversation twixt bored instructor and stressed (and also a bit bored) Instructional Designer.

So here you go: a cool, new, next big thing. A concept, not a tool. An idea that can lead down the road to great tech implementation but doesn’t obligate it. The revolutionary idea is…. motivating the heck out of students to engage and “own” their learning. Engaging them in a way that they haven’t engaged since their days of wide-eyed, curiosity-driven play a.k.a. kindergarden days.  

In terms of the implementation of technology-for-teaching, the important aspect is not the coolness of the technology; it’s the propensity it brings to amplify student motivation. Here’s a tip; I’m going to wager (fake money against myself) that the most over-used word in Higher Education in 2018 will be curiosity, specifically in the context of how we develop, cultivate and nurture it. It’s an accessible way to qualify intrinsic motivation without sounding too psycho-babbly. It will take the title of “next big thing” away from the jaded “G” words - Gamification or (as more accurately) Gameful design. Everyone’s sooo over those right? Jumped the shark, yesterday’s chip wrappers etc etc..

Hang-on-a-minute though; I don’t think we can deny that games can and do intrigue, they can and do promote curiosity and, importantly can help players develop resilience. Sports (which are also gameful btw) can engender Flow, a good Movie (esp. one with gameful elements) can engage. My feeling is that we (as educators) should not cede that ground without another damn good go at it. GREAT TEACHING can do all of this and more.

In my travels, I have come across some wonderfully creative instructors, ones whose attitude is to Give it a Go, Revisit, Revise and Make it Better. We preach, some of us, to our students that they should show courage and not fear failure, then we go back to yellowed Lesson Plans, Powerpoints and Essays for finals…
The instructors I studied and reference in my book “Game On!” applied technologies, in a quite basic way, but for the most part, their main achievement was to say “What the Heck..” and try cool, interesting and fun concepts. In the book, I have assessed them in gameful design terminology but then more granularly as Intrinsic Motivator (or even curiosity) generators; means by which they have woven hooks and incentives that are very obvious in successful games (and other activities) into their teaching.

These stories of invention, creativity and imagination are for the most part, very low-tech beta-style implementations – low risk - controlled explosions if you like. These efforts can be replicated, requiring only basic tools and systems, can-do attitudes and a sense of fun. Few-to-no students in the cases I studied complained about the low-tech nature of these projects; they were too busy engaging in their learning and having fun doing it. In many cases these hands-on practitioners reported on the shift from students scraping past minimal requirements, dragging their heels, to management and direction of an engaged and motivated class that skated –way- past the minimums as part of a motivated, democratized (as in fully participating) community.

Reviewed against principles and leading theorists of Flow and Intrinsic Motivation, these examples will give jaded instructors and course designers ideas, energy and more importantly permission to be creative. Reviewing what these practitioners have achieved will encourage others to look at activities in their lives that motivate you, think of times and circumstances when flow state is achieved and see whether elements of that experience can be applied to educational experiences in class or online. Game-like – yes, but more importantly embodying key experiences and authenticity in deliverables that lead to self-determined motivation, curiosity, (ideally) a smattering of fun and better outcomes. Worth a shot. And you won’t even need to hassle your CIO (or CFO) for support…
Creativity is affordable, curiosity is golden. “Game On!” Indeed.

Kevin Bell is the pro-vice chancellor of digital futures at Western Sydney University in Australia. He is also the author of Game On! Gamification, Gameful Design, and the Rise of Gamer Education