What an origami swan challenge taught us about motivation to learn

It’s the year 2025.

75% of the workforce is required to have expertise in making paper swans.

These swans are vital to the labour market and society at large. It is an expected skill in almost all roles; regardless of the sector or seniority.

Economies that have the best swan-makers are considered the most influential nations in the world.

Paper swan making has been added to almost every curriculum in the world, meaning recent and soon-to-be graduates are entering the workplace as ‘swan-making natives’, well-prepared to take the best jobs.

Here are the instructions. Now make a paper swan. You have 5 minutes.

This is how we kicked off our most recent Digital Frontrunners workshop ‘How do we motivate adults to learn?’ in partnership with the Think Tank DEA, in Copenhagen last month.

Asking a room of employment, policy and educational professionals to suspend reality and buy into such a seemingly-silly scenario with no context felt risky. Faces in the room ranged from perplexion to amusement, but the point of the exercise became clear soon enough; it wasn’t just a bit of random origami fun!

Five minutes after getting their instructions, there was not a single paper bird in sight. Many had given up.

We asked: what was going through your mind during the activity?

It was demotivating.

I was confused

I actually found it quite stressful, the stakes felt really high.

Look around the room [shows that no one made a swan], humanity is doomed.

I didn’t really buy into this paper swan premise, so I just didn’t do it.

The instructions were really hard to follow, so I gave up.

I googled my own instructions, I didn’t understand yours.

The scenario caused the group to experience the physical and emotional reality of what it feels like to be expected to learn a strange new skill with limited context and support.

Achieving a culture of lifelong learning in adults is a tough nut to crack, and this reality lies at the heart of that. We must understand the learner and their needs in order to increase adult participation in learning.

Make it relevant, important and accessible

They told us we had set them up for failure. Some of the key things we failed to deliver as part of the exercise:

  • Clear instructions
  • Consideration for basic things like language
  • Clear learning objectives and an indication of what success looks like
  • A context that felt relevant enough for them as learners
  • Awareness/sensitivity of what their attitude might be towards swan making
  • Awareness/sensitivity of who they were as learners, and how it might affect their willingness to engage with it now, and in the future.

These (deliberate) decisions - designed to provoke reflection and debate - had a direct effect on one of the reactions:

“I’ll now identify myself as someone who can’t ‘make swans’, so next time I need to ‘make a swan’, I’ll not even try”.

They told us, external pressure - such as the prospect of a job getting automated - probably won’t get many workers to engage in learning if they’d had poor experiences in the past.

Those at most risk from automation in many cases are not a willing and receptive audience and this needs to be considered in engagement strategies.

It also means that once you do have a captive audience, learning experiences need to feel relevant and important in order to maintain motivation to participate. Learning design needs to be informed by what works, and we should test different approaches if there isn’t enough existing evidence.

Make (intentional) discomfort and uncertainty part of the learning

We also observed that some people gave up after a minute or two; others thought we were tricking them, and some continued to try (and succeeded) well after the session had finished.

People reacted differently to the uncertainty and discomfort inherent in the task, despite the lack of consequences and stakes being low. We felt it was a good analogy for how people react to challenges and learning in the real world, and should be considered in any learning experience.

For example, the Stanford d.school build ambiguity into the learning experiences for their students, helping to develop creativity, resilience, and comfort in the ambiguous. This, in turn, prepares them for the real world where the stakes are high and the consequences are real.

Nesta has previously explored employer demand for digital skills and occupation growth prospects. Skills such as resilience and creativity are becoming increasingly necessary; finding ways to develop these in a safe learning environment is a priority for practitioners.

Get them longing for the open sea

Our participants didn’t ‘believe us’.

The premise felt distant, vague, and certainly not urgent. It chimed with warnings that robots will rule us in the next 50 years; it’s not accurate or helpful. Some did suggest that learning for the future, and the dangers of not doing so should be subject to narratives and campaigns reminiscent to those for climate change and global warming where the stakes are very high.

These campaigns can only go so far. As individuals, we’re not always great at protecting the future of the planet, looking after our health, saving for our future, or in this case ensuring we are well equipped to cope with a rapidly changing labour market.

People don’t often look deep into the future and make the most ‘rational’ decisions based on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Instead, research shows that the trigger to participate in learning simply comes at a tipping point where personal benefits outweigh personal costs in the short term. Behavioural models such as the COM-B model, or the EAST framework can help us construct environments that tip the balance towards a desire to engage in learning.

As the session drew to a close, we also noticed that rather than a swan, someone had expertly made a paper boat. Perhaps they'd gone off piste, but we also like to think that it was a literary reference shared earlier:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
What did an origami paper swan challenge teach us about motivation to learn?


Elsie Till

Elsie Till

Elsie Till

Assistant Programme Manager, Digital Frontrunners

Elsie managed the operations and internal running of the Digital Frontrunners programme.

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Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Juan Casasbuenas

Curriculum and Content Manager

Juan was a Curriculum and Content Manager supporting the Digital Frontrunners and Global Innovation Policy Accelerator programmes.

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