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Learning Because We Want To


Chuck Kinzer

Chuck Kinzer

Chuck Kinzer uses technology to understand the role of motivation in education  

by  Joe Levine

A century ago, the pioneering teachers college psychologist E. L. Thorndike proposed the Law of Effect: If an association is followed by a satisfying state of affairs, it will be strengthened, and if it is followed by an annoying state of affairs, it will be weakened.

Today, Chuck Kinzer, who directs TC’s program in Communication, Computing and Technology in Education (and the program’s Game Research Lab), is applying a similar lens toward finding ways that technology motivates people to learn. More broadly speaking, he seeks to extract—from human interactions with technology—fundamental principles of how learning occurs.

“Technology is inherently motivating,” says Kinzer. “People want to use it. They like their smartphones and touch pads. We’re trying to figure out why these things motivate people and use the underlying principles to build instructional systems. We believe that although learning is content-specific, there are learning processes in a larger sense.”

Like Thorndike, Kinzer defines learning broadly, to include any experience-driven change in behavior, with motivation, social factors and cognitive processes as the operative forces. For example, Lit2Quit, the smoking-cessation game developed by an interdisciplinary group of Kinzer’s students, is designed as a replacement therapy that taps some of the motivators that make people smoke. The game can induce breathing states similar to both the adrenaline rush and the more relaxed, yoga-like experience that smokers seek. Like a cigarette break, playing Lit2Quit takes three to five minutes, and it involves hand movements so that players use all of the modalities involved in smoking when playing the game.

“The ultimate goal would be to have people think, ‘Why not reach for the game?’” Kinzer says. “So right now, we’re doing physiological studies of people who use Lit to see if the same areas of the brain are activated as in smoking, and to see if we’re getting other, similar physiological responses such as elevated heart rate and perspiration. We’re also recording emotional measures.”

In another project, conducted through a multi-institutional collaboration called the Games for Learning Institute (G4LI), Kinzer and his students are trying to tease apart the components of educational games that are central to engaging young people’s interest and attention. They have studied the role of narrative, the effect of gender and appearance of avatars (figures that represent the user), the size of the screen as an element of game-playing, the relative appeal of single-user games versus those that involve multiple players, and, using an eye tracking system, the effect of graphics on comprehension. The results of these inquiries, while still preliminary, have often been surprising. For example, in one published study, middle-school students preferred a book-reading activity to a single-user Nintendo game or a similar comic book.

In another project, Kinzer and a colleague, project director Jo Anne Kleifgen, are using a multimodal web-based program to enhance academic writing and subject-matter learning among Latino middle-schoolers who are learning English (see story, page 45).

“If you succeed at something difficult, that’s satisfying because you feel better about yourself,” Kinzer says. “We provide learning support structures for children so that when they write and can see their writing get better, and see that they’re doing meaningful research, that’s a satisfying, motivational thing for them.”

Kinzer is quick to point out that he is not a motivational psychologist nor, in fact, a psychologist at all. He majored in English as an undergraduate and earned his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in language and literacy education—an orientation that has given him an appreciation for the social and cognitive factors that play into motivation.

“My training is to look at people and to understand the interrelations that make them act as they do,” he says. “We don’t develop language in a vacuum, for example. So right away there are social factors within a cognitive process.”

Ultimately, unlike many researchers who are inspired by the “gee whiz” factor—the seemingly magical prospect of enabling people to talk to friends across the ocean using a pocket-size square of plastic and metal, or to get driving directions from a disembodied voice—Kinzer studies technology because of what it reveals about behaviors and processes that people already engage in.

“Until very recently, many theories about learning were difficult to test and implement, but now technology allows us to test them in new and very powerful ways,” he says. “Take the idea that children learn best in a socio-cognitive context. We couldn’t easily test that because kids would have to physically meet after school or on weekends in social activities. But then we get a chat function, a technology that lets you collaborate and do things at a distance, and suddenly three kids can get online and work together. Or remember learning to write a letter? It was so inauthentic because you knew the only person who was going to read it was your teacher. Or maybe the class would write to a famous children’s author, but it would take weeks before there was a reply, if ever. Now technology gets you a response in a meaningful period of time, which is much more motivating and can affect learning. So I’m interested in not just testing a technology but understanding its effects on thinking, social interaction and learning.”

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