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My 11-year-old son is in his second year of secondary school and motivating him to learn is becoming increasingly difficult.

In primary school, the subject material was presented by his teachers in an entertaining way. His school books were like children's books with fun and educating stories, nice illustrations, and information presented in a fascinating way, similar to documentary movies. He also had no homework: he was in school until 3 p.m. every day and all learning was done in school under the supervision of teachers. This had the advantage of a clear spatial distinction between "work" and "leisure" as well as taking the learning stress out of our parent-child relationships (I wouldn't be happy with my wife controlling my work behavior, either).

Now, in secondary school, what he has to learn is presented in a boring info-dump, and he comes home at noon and has to learn it all by himself at home where he would rather relax and play. In primary school he enjoyed school and was happy to go in the mornings. He liked learning and was proud of his achievements. Now he dislikes school. He's an intelligent child, but like most of his peers he's more interested in playing computer games or having unsupervised fun with his friends. Forcing him to work for school has become a serious strain on our family.

What I note, though, is that playing computer games isn't purely fun, either. He is often frustrated when he hasn't yet mastered a gaming related skill yet (e.g. "fastbridging" in Minecraft) or when players he plays against defeat him. But he isn't demotivated by this. Instead, he puts even more effort into his gaming.

And I understand this well. I find playing computer games more entertaining than learning French or Maths, too. I don't let my gaming come in the way of my learning, because as an adult I can set my long-term goals before my urge to have fun now, but I certainly don't enjoy learning French vocabulary more than I enjoy my leisure activities. But my eleven year old son cannot take on this long term perspective yet, and the "unfun" of learning is just too great an obstacle for him to overcome on his own.

I can "help" him by forbidding him to play until he has done his homework. The problem with this approach is that when learning isn't fun, he doesn't learn as well. There are countless studies that show how people of all ages learn better when they enjoy learning. Also, it is a constant effort for me, and I would rather not have this controlling and punishing relationship with my son.

I'd rather my son was as motivated to master French as he is to master Minecraft, Fortnite, or Clash of Clans.

So I'm wondering what I can do to "gamify" his learning a bit more. Sure, he does get marks in school in the same way that he gets points in a computer game. But that's where the similarity ends.

While computer games aren't always fun but often frustrating (even to the point of tears), they remain highly motivating, almost addictive. Besides pretty graphics and a fascinating world to explore, they offer rewards in a much more motivating way than school does. The reward in learning French is many years away for my son and very vague. The reward in Clash of Clans is opening a chest with items that are useful immediately, in game. The reward in Minecraft is interacting with other players, making friends, and gaining the respect of his peers (when he shares his achievements with his classmates over WhatsApp). The reward in Fortnite is living out his power fantasies (it's my son's most intimate wish to be strong and invincible).

So how can I make learning for school as rewarding as playing a computer game?


Some thoughts:

  • When you get better at French, French becomes easier in the same way that a chest with a new "power" makes playing some game easier, but the French reward doesn't come with sound effects and in the form of a chest box. It remains rather unnoticable.
  • While my son's friends will be happy with him and admire him for gaining 20000 points a day in some game (because that is essentially meaningless), they will react to exceptional marks in school with envy and make fun of him as a swot or wonk (because it exposes their own real shortcomings).
  • My son has a most intimate wish to be strong and physically able (and many games play on this fantasy in that they present virtual physical prowess), but no inherent desire to be good at Maths or speaking a foreign language.
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Learning just for the sake of learning is, to some (maybe many) people, boring. It isn't that learning things isn't interesting or that there aren't tons of wonderful things to learn about. For some, learning without a purpose feels like a waste of time. Why should I spend my time doing something I find pointless when I could rather do something meaningful?

Before you start mentally arguing about learning not being pointless or not meaningful (don't worry, I'll come back to that in a second), think about your own learning. You mention learning French and that (from what I can infer from your post) you find value in it. Because of the value you see in learning something like French, you've given yourself a goal and are working towards it. And while learning French probably won't be the most fun thing you do in a day, you can enjoy it because you can see progress towards your goal. You are a little more fluent and can understand a little bit more after a bit of study. You can look back and see that things that used to be hard are now easy. That kind of experience makes it easier to continue learning French.

Conversely, imagine someone info-dumping on you about something you care nothing about (maybe it's fashion, teen boy bands, math, the life cycle of the Peruvian dung beetle, etc.). Hearing about it is boring, something where you (or others in a similar position) would mentally check-out of the conversation. Being forced to read about it would be dull. Being required to study it for hours on end would feel aggravatingly soul draining. Being forced to do anything pointless or mundane will make many people put in a minimal effort, just enough to get by and get it over with.

Learning is pointless when you don't care about it, when it holds no meaning or value to you. I don't know a single person who went through school without having at least on class (or one section of a class) that didn't bore them to death. Gaming isn't interesting just because of shiny pixels and sounds (though that does help). Gaming is interesting and engaging because it gives people goals (either short term, minute to minute goals or longer term accomplishments). In order to make learning interesting and enjoyable for your son, he needs a goal or some other way to make learning relevant to him.

Don't try to impart a goal onto your son, help him to find his own. The reasons you consider learning important (future career, being a better adult, etc.) aren't likely to resonate with an 11 year old. Help him find a project or hobby where math is used (I personally like wood working. Arithmetic and trigonometry are important when designing things I want to build.). Find some way to use French in a fun way (make friends with a French speaker maybe?). Any hobby or interest your son has will have something to learn. Help him embrace learning there and bring in more subjects to enhance those interests.

Finally, there is a life lesson in self discipline here. Some times you just have to buckle down and learn (or do) things you don't want to. It's part of life and learning how to soldier through that kind of experience is valuable. Show your son the best parts of learning and school and teach him that we sometimes have to take the boring with the interesting. Empathize with him over the boring, mundane, spiritless drudgery that are some subjects and then get excited with him over the interesting, love-sparking, soul-filling, passionate joy of becoming better at the things you love.

Loving learning isn't about loving the act of gathering information. It's about taking information and applying it to your passions.

  • Not so sure about the Peruvian dung beetles: Some dung beetles have taken to decapitating millipedes: "Aware of reports that certain beetles attack live millipedes, Larsen decided to go in search of the killer. After identifying a likely Peruvian species called Deltochilum valgum, he captured some specimens to observe their behaviour. "I was amazed to unravel the highly detailed attack strategies employed by the beetles," he enthuses. Once again, decapitation is their favoured mode of attack." – Anne Daunted Feb 4 at 15:49
  • @AnneDaunted That's pretty interesting. #whenyoumakesomethingupanditturnsouttoberealandprettycool (I knew dung beetles were real, not sure if there is a Peruvian variety though). – Becuzz Feb 4 at 16:37
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There are many already existing products that literally "gamify" language learning. Duolingo is one of the best known, and has the advantage of being free. So if that's the direction you want to take, that's directly available to you. Or, if you want to reduce the technological aspect, and you're willing to put some effort of your own in, you could compete with your son in learning French, or do things like write him secret messages in French. You could do similar things for other subjects like math. Even flashcards are arguably a game, if presented as one (some kids may be more open to this than others). Given that other parents must likewise be struggling, you plausibly could recruit other parents and their children (your son's peers) into this effort. Even his teachers might get on board if asked.

With all that said, your son won't always have you around to make every tedious task fun for him. So it might be a better long-term strategy to work with him to help him figure out his own ways to find interest in tough subjects. Don't assume this has to be a game. Sometimes the better way to make something meaningful is to fit it into a real world context. For instance, maybe you could help him find a French-speaking pen pal to correspond with --or a French immersion meetup group.

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