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Story | Research
13 July 2021

Op-ed: Where to find motivation to learn? Not (only) in school

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Opportunities to learn and grow don't need to be tied to school grounds, according to Aurelio Amaral, Head of the Learning Ecosystems Track at QF’s World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) - our passions can create more active and engaged learners in the long run.

What can we learn by observing the surroundings in our own neighborhood, or by interacting with people and organizations from our communities? There is no doubt that there is a lot of potential for youth development beyond our school borders. So what can schools learn from actors in our society who are not necessarily educators, but can play a role in learning? 

To foster more engagement in school, many principals and teachers are seeking to offer a breadth of real world more opportunities outside the classroom space

Aurelio Amaral

Motivating students is one of the key challenges faced by school leaders from public and private schools in Qatar. We know this based on preliminary findings from an action-research project conducted by WISE, which has surveyed over 100 public and private schools and non-formal education providers in Qatar. 

To foster more engagement in school, many principals and teachers are seeking to offer a breadth of real world more opportunities outside the classroom space, which are related to the curriculum and connect to learners’ passions and interests. This includes visits to employers and cultural spaces, or – in times of COVID-19 and e-learning – virtual talks with leaders from various areas of expertise to bring an aspect of learning to life.

Outdoor learning at a school in the US. Source: Reuters/USA Today Network

There is reasonable evidence from a systematic research review that the involvement of external partners is “important to facilitate the productive dialogue, co-construction of knowledge and reflection on practice needed to help teachers construct creative learning environments”. By being in a non-conventional setting and interacting with new people, there is evidence to suggest that young people are more likely to engage or, at least, to spark some curiosity.

However, is it possible that more exposure to “real world” experiences not only generates more interest in the short-term, but also leads to longer-lasting motivation to learn? Possibly yes – and one possible explanation for this is related to personal relations and connections that youth might develop with topics and concepts they will learn and have exposure to.

The more access to experiences they have, the higher the likelihood they will encounter topics and role models that speak to their hearts and nurture their intrinsic motivation to learn

Aurelio Amaral

Underserved students often see only extrinsic motivation to learn, i.e. external incentives such as obtaining a certain grade to pass a test. There is evidence, however, that systems focused solely on external rewards and punishments are “unlikely to achieve sustained, productive motivation”. In contrast, the more access to experiences they have, the higher the likelihood they will encounter topics and role models that speak to their hearts and nurture their intrinsic motivation to learn, i.e. the motivation that comes from natural enjoyment of being curious and learning about something. 

Our team has witnessed, for example, primary school students from Qatar Academy Al Wakra – one of Qatar Foundation’s schools – being more intrigued about how fruits and vegetables are grown in their local farms after being exposed to a very different concept in a virtual talk with an expert in urban vertical farming. Such interest could be nurtured even further and turn into passion if there are opportunities to interact closely with people who work with agriculture and food engineering in their communities – especially if their professional trajectories and/or personal journeys have elements the youth can relate to. The problem is that our ecosystems are not fundamentally designed to nurture this type of learning - or at least, not at a wide scale - meaning many students struggle to get out of their motivation block beyond school grounds.

WISE has been encouraging and broadening non-formal learning opportunities for youth in Qatar through its local initiatives

Aurelio Amaral

In an effort to solve this problem, WISE has been encouraging and broadening non-formal learning opportunities for youth in Qatar through its local initiatives. In 2020, we piloted a hybrid week-long learning festival in Al-Wakra working alongside a range of local and international partners with the goal of encouraging students to not only learn from guest from abroad, like in the virtual exchange mentioned above, but also to interact with spaces in the municipality and reflect on issues in their communities. In one of the activities, we recorded a digital tour with a sustainability expert around the Al-Janoub Stadium and the green area of its surroundings, through which students could learn that the planning of the area included donation of trees by local families. 

During one of the extra-curricular workshops, students were able to visit and document the old streets in the surroundings of Al-Wakra’s souq and develop photographic narratives about the local environment. Some of them focused their eyes and lenses on old objects and furniture that households had recently thrown away. Others centered their narratives around the houses, and their architecture and colors. In common, all photos led to further questions about the neighborhood, its history, and its residents.  

Extracurricular calligraphy classes taking place at a Japanese school. Source: Reuters/Masahiro Sugimoto

Currently, WISE is attempting to create more non-formal learning opportunities with potential to foster more intrinsic motivation to learn through its Learners’ Voice program. The initiative, which equips fellows with self-expression skills, has been redesigned in 2021 to be a year-long series of extracurricular activities serving 45 local public middle- and high-schools from 9 different schools, in a partnership with the Ministry of Education. During the kickoff session, organized in March 2021 with our curriculum and delivery partners, Eidos Global and PA.Qatar, we have been able to see higher levels of engagement sparkle in particular when students: 

  • Use speculation and storytelling to discuss societal problems, such as examining the consequences of global warming by creating scenarios of how life in Doha would look like if the city was permanently flooded
  • Explore their identities and through the lenses of their communities, for example, by analyzing older and more recent portraits taken in Qatar and observing how fashion traditions in the country evolved over time.
  • Interact with role models who can nurture their aspirations: Shaima Al-Tamimi, a Qatar-based artist, explored with the students the sub-text behind her works and those from artists from the region. The personal connection and the contextualized references helped students to see a deeper purpose in developing their own photography projects.

    Through the learnings from the program, it would be possible to collect some evidence on the contribution of non-formal learning to youth engagement in the formal education system in Qatar. The experience might as well encourage more collaboration between schools and other actors in the society – especially those who can help to nurture youth’s personal interests and stimulate the pursuit of their ambitions in the future.

In our program and research efforts, we have been working to identify the conditions and lay the foundations to establish and maintain in Qatar effective learning ecosystems

Aurelio Amaral

In our program and research efforts, we have been working to identify the conditions and lay the foundations to establish and maintain in Qatar effective learning ecosystems – an emerging concept which consists of effective collaboration among schools, businesses and community-based organizations to offer inclusive learning opportunities that improve motivation, bridge gaps in a community and promote social cohesion.

This, by no means, undermines the role of the formal education system. Rather it looks to capitalize on all the different learning places and assets within a community to support formal learning, and unlock the intrinsic motivation of learners.

If youth can find new sources of motivation to learn outside school –  especially when they are nearby in the community – this should only benefit and enhance the overall education experience.

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