Mindsets and Motivation: 2014, Start Your Engines


The Motivation Landscape.

In the wake of Badges, the spectre of behaviorism, and the proliferation of learning platforms on the web, how are we as practitioners and researchers to move forward in light of what we’ve learned? How have recent discussions about motivation, growth mindsets, and malleable intelligence affect how we design for learning? What’s the role of research in the building of learning platforms on the web? A recent conference on “Motivation and Mindsets” at the MIT Media Lab brought together researchers, learning designers and builders to address just these questions.

Carol Dweck’s ideas about “growth mindsets” and motivation have gained respect and momentum in the learning community. So much so, her thinking on how to develop an “academic mindset” has been incorporated into the Hewlett Foundation’s “Deeper Learning Skills.”

Learning designers and theorists are interested belonging in order to overcome certain roadblocks for learners: folks who feel like they don’t belong can display poor learning behaviors. They might not ask questions if they feel out of place, not wanting to draw attention to their outsider status. Especially in new environments, like in the transition from high school to college, learners might not feel prepared, which prevents them from getting the help they need to sustain participation.

We at P2PU are very interested in how we can build a sense of “belonging” to help develop an academic mindset. As the theory goes, if you feel a sense of belonging in a learning community, you’ll feel positively about learning, not shy away from challenges, and reach out to others to help buoy you up when you need help.

Together with Dr. Alex Ruthmann at NYU, we designed our latest course offering “Play With Your Music” to explore ideas about academic mindsets. We grouped folks together in “learning ensembles” based on their musical taste. (You can read more about it here). Our next offerings, likely both a statistics and a fiction experience, will test ideas about a sense of belonging. I was quite excited to talk to folks who were also thinking about these issues, and came away from the meeting thinking about the following themes.

Identity and Belonging in Learning Groups.

In our Thursday breakout session, we shared ideas about how to build culture in learning communities. Andrew Sliwinski shared the “optimistic design” of DIY.org, which helps learners “actualize” their identity. Instead of learning the discipline of Botany learner take on the role of Botanists. As a platform, DIY.org can rely on a sense of authenticity, and the cultural sense of each community (Beekeepers, Dancers, Architects) is communicated immediately as soon as you visit it.

David Scott Yeager also shared some excellent research about how noun phrasing / language primed folks to take on that role. (Here’s David Bryan’s paper on Motivating Voter Turnout and Noun Phrasing).

I had also been deeply affected by something that Avi Kaplan said to me as we were eating pastries “We have a need for affiliation and that manifests as identity.”

Community and Belonging.

Our Friday breakout session was the source of several epiphanies for me. I’d been thinking about how Andrew builds culture in his learning community. When Ricarose Roque and Mitch Resnick started brainstorming new ideas for how to onboard folks into the Scratch community, it dawned on me:

  • Scratch and DIY.org can model community norms because they’ve built a learning community on their platform.
  • P2PU has an additional challenge because we bootstrap learning communities each time, and courses are time-dependent.
  • What if we think about our courses as an “introduction” to a wider learning community? For instance, when we run each iteration of Play With Your Music in the future, the course functions as onboarding to the #PWYM community?


This stellar meeting definitely gave me food for thought, and solid footing to engage P2PU’s projects for 2014. To name a few:

  • Consider time-dependent courses as an onramp to a larger learning community that is ongoing.
  • Rethink “retention” in light of learning communities as opposed to courses. If your contributions to a learning community are ongoing, then the idea of “course completion” is a bit moot.
  • We’ve designed learning cohorts / groups in the past based on attributes (i.e. time zone, learning style, etc.) In the future we’ll design so folks can build their own salient group identities.
  • Think about group-formation as a kind of assessment. If learning usually happens in a community of practice, finding your “crew” is a kind of knowledge.

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