I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a group of preservice teachers about 21st Century tools.  In the course of my presentation, a participant asked, “So are you always on the lookout for opportunities to use digital tools in the lessons that you’re teaching because they’re so motivating to kids?”

My answer:  Heck no!

(click to enlarge. download slide and view original image credit on Flickr.)

Instead, when I’m teaching a lesson, I’m looking for opportunities to engage my kids in a study of motivating content.  For middle schoolers, that usually means a study of a concept connected to fairness.  Justice and injustice simply resonates with tweens, doesn’t it?  That kinda happens when you’re the last one in the shower every morning, you’re stuck sitting in the back seat for a decade, and you have to wait until your older brother gets off Facebook before you can surf the net for the latest Hannah Montana video!

I’m also looking for opportunities to engage my kids in good conversations.  The way I figure, trying to SHHUUSSHH 12-year olds is an uphill battle at best.  After all, in most situations, the one doing the talking is the one doing the learning—-and besides, any living creature willing to hang out around urinals in a middle school bathroom just to steal a few minutes shooting the breeze has a determination to connect that I’m never going to squelch!

danah boyd said it best in this blog post when she wrote:

School is one of the few times when [students] can get together with their friends and they use every unscheduled moment to socialize – passing time, when the teacher’s back is turned, lunch, bathroom breaks, etc.  They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired.

Listen to that language and tell me it ain’t true:  They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect.

Long story short: The digital tools that I use in my class aren’t motivating.  Instead, it’s the content that I select, the questions that I ask, and the interactions that my students share with one another that are motivating.  Start a conversation on hate—like this one—-or on why the world turns a blind eye towards inequality—-like this one—and students will wrestle with deep issues in a way that just might surprise you.

Ask students to reflect on the deeper meaning behind my boy Pythagoras’ theorem, and you’ll have a bunch of dead air on your hands, no matter what digital tool you’re using!

The teachers who count on blogs, wikis, Voicethread, Skype, Animoto, Emodo, Blackboard, Youth Twitter—or any of a thousand other products that come and go—ALONE to increase engagement fall for what my buddy Dina Strasser calls the “motivational red herring.”  Digital tools do nothing more than make ongoing conversations efficient and approachable.  They give kids a chance to participate in a school culture that continues to discourage participation.

As my friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has been telling me for decades, motivation begins and ends with good decisions made teachers who know both their content and their kids.

(Image credit: Baltic Herring by Visulogik, licensed Creative Commons: Attribution)

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