If You Build It, Will They Come? Cultivating Intrinsic Motivation in Our Learners

By Elyse Winick

[This article is the second in a series written by participants in the Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

One of the great attractions of working with adult learners is that they come to learn voluntarily. The energy in the room is very different. It is affirmative and dynamic, and the anticipation is heightened. If only every learner were drawn to Jewish education like a moth to a flame! But even among adult learners, hesitation, resistance, and other priorities can stand in the way of them even considering crossing the threshold of our “classrooms.” We can choose to restrict our learning spaces to those who come to us, but for those of us who seek a degree of communal Jewish fluency by reaching as broad of an audience as possible, creating a magnetic attraction is essential. If adult learners come of their own volition and choice, how can we help cultivate their intrinsic motivation for Jewish learning?

Throughout this past year in my new role at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, I was simultaneously a participant in the inaugural M² Senior Educators Cohort where we studied the topic of intrinsic motivation in depth. We studied it in the context of the formation of one’s Jewish identity, and I have since been applying this to my work with the adult learner population, focusing on the following two questions: How can we get people to want to learn on their own and for the sake of their own Jewish knowledge? How can we help cultivate a desire for Jewish learning that is motivated by the learner’s own pure interest in learning? These questions led me to pilot a new adult-learning program this summer and a way to test: would adults opt-in to learning during their summer vacation time and what would drive them to take time out of their leisure activities to be present and to participate?

The seed of the idea, Summertime Learning, began with an interested volunteer who was both predisposed to Jewish learning and had a contagious enthusiasm. While my starting point was the desire to provide an enriching experience and inspire further learning, the details would evolve in conversation with her. I came prepared with a list of suggestions, but mostly I came prepared to listen to her thoughts and ideas. We talked for a while, and ultimately, we settled on the subject of Civil Discourse, a topic we were both drawn to and motivated to discuss with others.

My host invited learners in her own network, reaching out to friends and neighbors. We planned to gather in her summer home on Martha’s Vineyard from 5 to 7pm on a Thursday evening, which would still allow for other social plans. Ten couples replied to our invitation for “Cocktails and Conversation” in the affirmative, and I was pleasantly shocked.

I prepared a source packet of traditional and contemporary texts, following through on a promise to my host to present ancient wisdom for modern problems. James Carville and Marlee Matlin made an appearance (on paper) alongside Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. Gemara shared space with Hasidut and educational philosophy. Something for everyone.

Under sunny skies, the host set up the backyard with a bar and ample hors d’oeuvres. Schmoozing and introductions went on for about 45 minutes. We read the first text in Hebrew and then English out loud together. Before I had a chance to ask a single question, a man who was lounging deeply in his chair asked to clarify something. Of course, he was neither asking nor clarifying, but putting his cards on the table as an opening volley in our discussion. Someone responded to him and then a third chimed in. Though they occasionally glanced in my direction for a response, they were off and running. When they began to run out of steam, I brought it all back together, clarified the points I thought had been missed, and moved us on to the next text.

And so it went for the next hour. I drew the conversation to a close and offered to stick around to answer any questions. No one moved. Another question was asked. And then another. They were slow to let it end and thrilled to keep talking and debating. They were thirsty for this – they wanted to learn just to learn. The formula had worked.

Intrinsic motivation depends on creating a sense of connection and value. It requires a starting point that feels relevant to the learner (here, it was likely the topic we chose, which was very timely and current), yet implies future discovery. Beyond relevance, the learner needs to feel that the content matters. A blend of familiar (James Carville and Marlee Matlin) and foreign (Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish) simultaneously piques interest and offers comfort.

The external factors – environment and time of year – definitely helped; in this case, there was no pressure to be elsewhere because everyone was on vacation and had no other competing priorities (such as work), and there was nothing more appealing than cocktails in a beautiful backyard. The opportunity to have a deep conversation about something meaningful could shine on its own, unimpeded by overcrowded schedules and deadlines.

It was easy for the learners to be intrinsically motivated, perhaps because external factors were advantageous: it was a bunch of friends and neighbors coming together because they had the time and wanted to learn together. They were driven by their genuine interest in the subject, and they had nowhere else more pressing to be.

Now the question is, how do we help them continue to fan that flame of interest after they’ve come through the door, once they are back in their “non-vacation” lives? I believe that the first step is listening, which is the essential foundation to identifying the need, to visioning the process, and to pivoting, as needed, to keep the thing aloft once underway. By being partners in the learning experience, weaving together the learner’s and the teacher’s goals, it’s possible to create a compelling and magnetic opportunity. Allowing the learner to steer the ship, guided by their own interests, increases the likelihood that your goals and their needs will align, drawing them in and keeping them there.

Rabbi Elyse Winick is the Director of Adult Learning at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, and a graduate of the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications will be open soon for Cohort 3 of the Senior Educators Cohort.