How can learning be made cool?

It seems like if someone really wants to learn they will perform much better in school and in life. I think a great way to get there is if learning became cool. If kids got really excited about becoming scientists, inventors, engineers, great thinkers and entrepreneurs in the same way they currently get excited about potentially becoming pro athletes, musicians and actors.

So how can we, as a society, make learning cool? And how can each of us do our part?

I think if we can accomplish this it’d be one of the most impactful cultural changes that we can make.

Written Oct 19, 2016


The current learning system is broken. Here’s some interesting research, which addresses several of the ideas mentioned in the other answers.

The Paradox of Achievement

In an article by Deci and Ryan, the authors lay out the aspirations for an excellent learning outcome:

(T)eachers and parents … want students to achieve their full potentials, learning material that is deep, meaningful, and of lasting value, and developing a greater capacity to think critically and creatively about problems. But most teachers and parents would like even more than that. They would also like the students to be curious and interested in learning, rather than grade-focused or work-avoidant, and to gain a sense of confidence and competence as they learn.

High scores on standardized achievement tests do not ensure excellent education.

The authors then go on to define intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is a type of self-motivation in which people do activities that interest them, provide spontaneous pleasure or enjoyment, and do not require any “reward” beyond this inherent satisfaction.

Extrinsic motivation concerns doing a behavior to obtain some separate consequence that has been made contingent on the behavior.

The authors proceed to lay out research, and factors influencing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, especially as they pertain to the classroom setting.

(S)tudents who learned in order to be tested reported finding the material less intrinsically interesting than did the others. Further, those who expected to be tested actually gave worse answers on the conceptual questions than those who learned expecting to put the material to active use.

The authors also found similar results regarding the motivation of teachers, and they believe this may contribute to teachers being controlling in the classroom.

(B)y pressuring teachers, which much of the new emphasis on achievement seems to be doing, we may actually be working against what we would ultimately hope to accomplish.

As an aside, the authors do note that: “People can be extrinsically motivated because they personally value an activity, that is, because they consider it important for their long-term, self-selected goals.”

The authors summarize …

convincing evidence indicates that controlling events such as rewards, tests, and deadlines, as well as controlling interpersonal styles, not only decrease intrinsic motivation, but also tend to diminish conceptual learning activity, and flexible problem solving, all of which are hallmarks of what we consider high-quality achievement.

When the climate pressures students to achieve high test scores, not only will the motivational and emotional costs be substantial, but high-quality achievement will also typically suffer for the vast majority of students. Thus, the paradox of achievement: the harder you push the less you get.

How can learning be made cool?

Therefore, in 2002, researchers could already explain many of the reasons why learning is not cool.

How do we design a system that makes learning cool?

Here are some factors to consider/change:

  • Standardized testing causes major problems
    • Minimize or eliminate standardized testing
  • Competitive grading causes problems
    • Eliminate competitive grading
    • Use testing/grading solely to determine mastery achievement
  • Mandatory curriculum
    • Allow students / parents / teachers to determine curriculum
    • Optional “deep dive” / projects for students
  • Transmission” mode of learning (lectures)
    • Teachers assume role of coaches / mentors / tutors
    • Utilize “flipped classroom” style of teaching

Is this all “pie in the sky”?

The Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1968. At this school (and over 50 schools worldwide based on the Sudbury model), the children are in charge of the school. They are solely responsible for their education, their learning methods, their evaluation and their environment. But does it work?

Sudbury graduates have historically done very well when applying for college. The Sudbury Valley School has done an extensive study of their former students.

The results of their study show that a large majority (87%) of the graduates continue on to some form of further education; 4-year college, community college, performing arts school, culinary institute, etc.

Unlike Compulsory Education schools, graduates of a Sudbury school do not get into a college based on their transcript and their extracurricular activities. Sudbury school graduates get into colleges because they tend to be very focused on their career choice. This results in college applications that stand out from the crowd. Sudbury student’s have had the time during their high school years to investigate different options and to discover what they are passionate about.

One of the most striking facts discovered in Sudbury Valley School’s study of their former students is that 42% of the students who responded to the survey are either self employed or involved in entrepreneurial situations.

A Sudbury model school is not available in our area. Therefore, our family has opted to homeschool our child, and the pedagogical method we have chosen is Unschooling. This approach to learning is based on the principles of student-based learning, and is similar to the Sudbury approach.


The current (US) school system is broken. I have provided two examples of alternative learning approaches. I am sure others exist.

To make learning cool, we must move away from extrinsic motivation, and seek ways to provide intrinsic motivation. And remember the Paradox of Achievement: the harder you push the less you get.