Authenticity, Motivation, and Adolescents

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by Mr. Physics

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

So the readings from Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words by Illeris along with a reading required for my morning course Design Based Learning from Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media by Ito have come together to form a thought for me that was cemented by a discussion my table group had with our professor Dr. Sharon Friesen.

First here is the relevant quotes from the Illeris text:

The incentive dimension provides and directs the mental energy that is necessary for the learning process to take place. It comprises such elements as feelings, emotions, motivation and volition. Its ultimate function is to secure the continuous mental balance of the learner and thereby it simultaneously develops a personal sensitivity.

However, the incentive function is also still crucial, i.e. how the situation is experienced, what sort of feelings and motivations are involved, and thus the nature and the strength of the mental energy that is mobilised. The value and durability of the learning result is closely related to the incentive dimension of the learning process.

And the quotes from Ito:

These difficulties in translating recreational media engagement into school-based forms point to persistent tensions between peer-based learning dynamics and genres and those embedded in formal education.

Simply mimicking genre or sharing an assessment dynamic is not sufficient to promote the forms of learning that youth are developing when they are given authority over their own learning and literacy in these domains.

So the Illeris quotes speak to what he calls the incentive dimension of learning, and he talks about how learning involves three dimensions – the content dimension, which refers to “knowledge and skills as well as opinions, insight, meaning, attitudes, values, ways of behaviour, methods, strategies etc”., the incentive dimension, comprised of “feelings, emotions, motivation and volition”, and the interaction dimension, which “provides the impulses that initiate the learning process… and may take place as perception, transmission, experience, activity, participation etc.”. The incentive dimension is where the content is considered from the scope of what is at stake, and what is driving the learning, what is motivating the learning.

This is an area of interest for me, as I very often try to look at whatever learning experience we are trying to bring to our students from the perspective of “why will they be engaged?” and “why should they care?”. This learning theory from Illeris dedicates one third of his triangle of dimensions to this idea, and so I can connect with it easily.

When we were discussing the readings with the table group I was reminded of Ito’s quotes that seemed to speak to authenticity, at least that’s how I took them. She talks about how the informal learning that was going on in the online communities was difficult to recreate in a formal school setting and that mimicking the learning wasn’t successful. I believe that this speaks to our students not seeing the mimicry as authentic, and that the learning that occurs in online communities outside of school is meaningful to them because the participants are motivated to seek out their interests and passions and that is difficult to force in a formal setting.

My final inspiration for this post, as I said was from my professor, who was talking to us about how adolescent brain development made for some very specific conditions that need to be accounted for. She spoke about how they crave a connection, they are prone to emotional outbursts (similar to two year-olds) and that they need a personal link to the learning or they will check out quickly. She said that the teenage brain is “full speed, no steering” (the inspiration for the photo choice above).

So with the ideas of motivation being an integral component of learning (Illeris), and authenticity being key to personal learning (Ito) and finally the characteristics of the adolescent brain that we need to account for (Friesen), I find a great deal of validation for focusing on student connection to the learning. Whether it is connecting to student interests or passions, connecting to their lives in a meaningful way, or providing them an audience that for them brings authenticity, these resources have helped bring a confidence for me that we are probably right to keep making this a priority in our teaching and our students’ learning.


Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. 

Ito, M. (2009). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.


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