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Big Ideas and Motivation to Learn

Motivation to learn is a large and complex subject with many dimensions. Sometimes motivation is needed to engage with a subject and sometimes it is needed to persist in ‘boring’ tasks or when one gets stuck. Different students get motivated by different things- one loves ideas and the other wants to do things and so on. Yet there are certain common principles that work for most students, and in this post we argue that getting students to engage with the ‘big ideas’ of a discipline- ‘looking at the forest and not just at the trees’ is an important principle.

We use some examples from GenWise mentor, Ashish Kulkarni’s rcourse on Economics to make our point.

Though many of the students who have attended Ashish’s course were already learning economics in school they said that this course gave them a completely different perspective. As Ashish says, students were asking him questions in class, after class and even at the dinner table!

The students, if anything, seemed to enjoy the experience even more than I did. Our classes would begin at nine in the morning and get over by four in the afternoon, but the questions would continue beyond, and spill over onto dinner time. And as an econ-nerd who loves introducing new topics to people, I can’t tell you how it gladdened my heart so to be talking about the iron law of diminishing returns at eight in the evening, after a full day’s worth of classes. -Ashish Kulkarni

Ashish did many things well that made the course so engaging- the learning tasks were well designed- offering challenges that were at the right level of difficulty, games and role-plays were used to provide immersive experiences, there was good storytelling etc. His extensive knowledge of the subject and teaching experience equipped him to answer all kinds of questions and give many different examples. There were also no tests in the course and the focus was on learning for its own sake. But there was a somewhat less obvious but very important ingredient that went into creating engagement that we want to highlight.

Ashish started the course by talking about how a large number of convicts being sent to Australia from Britain, would die on the sea voyage (read more about this anecdote in this blog post- Why everybody should study Economics?), and invited students to analyze why this was happening and how this issue could have been addressed. You can imagine how the students got hooked to the subject right away! In our view, the less obvious ingredient that allowed Ashish to make the course so engaging was his clarity about the big ideas he wanted to convey. In the specific example mentioned here, the big idea was ‘incentives matter’.

Before the start of the course, we asked Ashish what his course would cover and he had rattled off 7 big ideas he was aiming to introduce to students-

  • incentives matter

  • trade matters

  • life is a non-zero-sum game

  • costs matter

  • prices are information

  • information matters

  • externalities matter

If an economics teacher does not have such clarity about what the big ideas (‘the forest’) in his/ her subject area, it would be easy to start with a specific topic like the supply-demand curve (‘a tree’). Most of the courses in school/ college on economics, certainly teach a lot about the ‘trees’ and students get ‘lost’ in their knowledge of them.

GenWise Co-Founder, Vishnu Agnihotri, has written a post on a framework called ‘Understanding by Design (UbD)’ which teachers can consciously use to create powerful ‘unit plans’ to teach any topic. The first step in the UbD process is for the teacher to get clear about the goals of the unit, and this is done by considering 2 questions-

  • What are the enduring understandings I am aiming for? In other words, what are the big ideas that we would like to leave the student with.

  • What essential questions can drive the student’s inquiry into the topic? These questions are at the heart of the subject, are worth arguing about and often raise further questions. Importantly, such questions can provide an organizing purpose for connected and meaningful learning of the unit, and motivate learners to engage with the unit. An example of an essential question in economics could be ‘How much should we pay for a hamburger?’. While this looks like a simple question on the surface, when externalities like how beef is produced are considered, the topic becomes quite tricky.

Keeping an eye on the big ideas is akin to getting an aeroplane level view of the terrain before parachuting down to one part of the terrain and investigating it more closely. There is a caveat though- sometimes understanding the whole terrain requires close investigation of specific parts of the terrain (e.g. familiarity with multiplication tables may be necessary before exploring some larger patterns in natural numbers). Thus the recommendation is not always to focus on big ideas, but to keep them clearly in mind. This is particularly important when introducing new subjects to young students, when they haven’t yet developed an interest or the motivation to learn the subject.

Given the age of the students and their background in economics, it was Ashish’s conscious choice to ‘ignite the fire’ to learn economics, rather than make sure that everything was fully understood. As he says in his post-

Did the students “get” everything, one might quite reasonably ask. And I’ll be honest and say probably not. It was a lot to pack in to just five days, and not all will have been retained. And of what has been retained, not all will be fully understood. But they left class every day wanting to learn more about the topics that they had learnt. They remained curious and inquisitive, they were willing to push back on topics and concepts they didn’t understand or instinctively disagreed with.

If there is one thing a teacher should leave students with, it should be this- the wanting to learn more…

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