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?
- 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.