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"Youth Say..." Lessons on Learning, Teaching, and Motivation from Young People

Youth say they want respect, voice, value, safety, support, challenges, and a sense that they are making a contribution to something goodin the world, so what can we learn from young people about what motivates them to engage and learn new skills?

Based on interviews with and observations of youth media producers in the Philadelphia area, this resource explores what motivates these youth to engage in the programs and what advice they have for educators who want to foster more engagement from students. As part of my Stoneleigh Junior Fellowship with Research for Action in 2010-2011, I listened to radio and video producers from the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) and Chester Voices for Change (VFC) to see what they think is interesting and motivating about media and how that could be applied to other learning environments.

This resource highlights my finding that these media literacy programs draw heavily from the intrinsic motivations of young people and encourage the development of mastery goal orientation, both of which help to encourage deep and sustained learning. I try to show this by:

  1. summarizing key shared motivations for why youth spend time creating media;
  2. highlighting what drives students to master skills; and
  3. sharing advice from the youth themselves about what educators should do to better engage students.

This is part of a set of resources based on my year of research as a Stoneleigh Junior Fellow. The other resources on Digital Is include "Educators Offer..." Literacies are..." and "Youth Practice..." You can find more details about all of this work on the Research for Action website.

Motivation & Media

This video talks about what motivates young people to engage in Chester Voices for Change, and many youth participants in the Philadelphia Student Union shared these motivations for their own involvement in PSU. These shared motivations, like a desire to raise their voices and something positive in their communities, drew students into media programs because it connected to some of their intrinsic motivations. In addition, by drawing on students' interests, their plans for the future, and the reality of creating a product for a real audience, VFC and PSU also helped students develop goals focused on mastery, sustaining their interest and dedication to the program and work. These ideas and suggestions from youth to teachers will follow the video.

As noted earlier, the media programs at PSU and VFC draw heavily on students' intrinsic motivations to:

RAISE THEIR VOICES, which youth said over and over again. They want their stories to be heard. One producer from VFC explained, "The main thing teenagers look for is just for someone to listen to everything you have to say." This desire to be listened to was shared by other young producers, like another VFC member who explained how great it was to write about her own life and what she wanted to write about, and PSU producers who talked about their desire to "write the news and not be the news" by highlighting the real stories and perspectives of youth in their communities.

DO SOMETHING POSITIVE, which was another shared goal between the programs.One PSU member explained, "If I'm gonna dedicate my time to something, it should be something positive. And to me, this is as positive as it gets." Other youth producers talked about how making media contributed to their communities, helped them serve as role models for younger siblings or neighbors, and raised awareness of positive activities, programs, and other happenings in the community.

Youth were drawn to PSU and VFC because the media production in those programs connected to their intrinsic or internal desires to be heard and contribute to their communities. In addition, other key aspects of the student' motivations helped them to engage in sustained learning focused on mastery, so that they would persevere through difficulties until they mastered a skill or created a product that met their own high standards. The goals or motivations that helped spark this drive included:

CONNECTING TO EXISTING INTERESTS AND FUTURE PLANS, which many of the students expressed in their interviews. Many youth, especially those in VFC, were already interested in media or communications. For most youth, media is a part of their culture, it's something they interact with every day, and so learning about media was in some ways, a kind of culturally-relevant pedagogy for all youth. But beyond that, there were also participants who wanted to be journalists, radio hosts, actors, music producers, and talk show hosts. Their future plans and existing interests brought youth into the programs and because they were learning skills and using tools that had a clear purpose in their futures, they were willing and determined to master what they learned.

CREATING PRODUCTS FOR REAL AUDIENCES, which pushed the youth to create quality products of which they were proud. You knew that their final piece would be played on air or available for anyone in the world to listen to or watch online, and that challenged them to give their best. They knew their name would be associated with this product that others could see and they wanted it to be perfect. Producers in both programs volunteered to come in for extra or longer hours in hopes of putting their final touches on a piece, and this recognition that their work was for an audience beyond just their teacher or their parents was exciting and motivating.

These connections to existing interests, future goals, and real audiences encouraged youth to pursue perfection and push through difficulties in order to master the skills and tools involved in the process. This dedication to a task, project, and learning process is something that educators should strive for with all of their students because it supports them to persevere through mistakes and truly master a skill or knowledge set. As such, PSU and VFC members also provided their own advice for educators about how to support students:

RESPECT STUDENTS AND THEIR EXPERIENCES. This came up repeatedly throughout the interviews. Students felt disrespected by teachers, which made them less likely to want to learn because they didn't feel valued as a person. The main piece of advice students had for adults working with young people was to respect them, value their experiences, and understand that they have important contributions and knowledge to share.

VALUE STUDENTS' VOICES. Given that one key motivation for joining media literacy programs was for youth to be heard, it should be clear that educators must value and find ways to share the voices of their students. By listening to what students, honoring and valuing their stories, and recognizing the important things that youth share, educators can go a long way in supporting their students and encouraging them to participate because the youth feel valued and empowered.

PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES TO CREATE PRODUCTS WITH REAL AUDIENCES.By sharing their products with an audience beyond their teachers or classrooms, students felt motivated to revise their work and dedicate time to create a quality product. These kinds of opportunities help students connect to their communities and push through difficulties they encounter while learning and creating. Educators who provide more opportunities to reach a real audience will likely reach more students, too.

Although good teachers have been doing these things for years, I find it is always a helpful reminder to hear what students think - to understand what they see as most important, useful, or motivating. There are still, however, some questions that must be thought about in more detail:

  • As important as student voice seems to be for encouraging student engagement in learning, how can student voice be effectively used and incorporated in today's educational climate that is so focused on reaching high test scores? This emphasis is clearly influencing today's classrooms and out-of-school programs as teachers are focused on test preparation and support for arts programs is being cut drastically. In this climate, how can educators in and outside of classrooms effectively support student voices?
  • Since connecting to students' interests and future goals can help them develop mastery-oriented goals for learning, how can educators help all students to connect learning to their own interests and goals? This may be especially difficult when working with large classes that have a wide range of interests and goals within it or when students are forced or required to participate in a class or program. Having only worked with students in voluntary afterschool programs, I wonder how educators manage a variety of students with different interests, plans for the future, and initial levels of motivation. Is there a way for educators and peers to help every student connect with material in a more meaningful way?
  • Although sharing work with a real audience is incredibly important, there are a number of ethical issues that must be thought about when doing so. At what stage is appropriate to share the work? How should youth, who are minors, be recognized or associated with their products? How might that change based on the content, audience, and mode of sharing? Who owns the final products when created in a group and for a particular class or organization? There are, undoubtedly, more questions along these lines that educators must consider when working with young people.

This is not meant to deter anyone from trying to use these techniques, but rather to note the difficulty and complexity of teaching and working with young learners and producers. If anyone has further ideas, suggestions, or responses, I'd love to hear them.

Don't forget to check out the details of this research on the Research for Action website.

gonna dedicate my time to something, it should be something positive. And … to
me this is as positive as it gets

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Discussions About This Resource

samim05's picture

I find this article very intreging. I like how it puts a positive focus on teenagers. Too often we only hear negative news surrounding young adults.