Hi, my name is Craig and I am a dopamine addict. I'm from a family of addicts. But I guess as you're reading this you're also an addict, but that's OK, because it's time to accept it as part of our modern society.
We have a real problem in our education system today. Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to keep children's attention, with some studies reporting a 42% increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder over the past 8 years. This is resulting in falling grades and increasing dropout rates.
There are three approaches to deal with this rapidly worsening problem:
The solution may however lie in a combination of the second and third approaches - chemical and technological, however not in the chemicals we make, but rather the chemicals our bodies create.
By using technology effectively, dopamine induced learning could not only solve education's problems, but result in highly motivated learners with good memories.
The legal drug
Dopamine is a chemical that functions as a neurotransmitter. It's role is related to reward-motivated behaviour. Rewarding behaviour results in an increase in the level of dopamine in the brain. Quite simply, this chemical gives you a mini high when you do certain things. Every time you read your email or scour the web or read social media posts, you are getting bursts of dopamine.
These little bursts of dopamine make you feel good, and keep you coming back for more. In fact reading this post is probably giving you a dopamine high.
Hugh McGuire, who dedicated his life to books, and started numerous online book repositories, confessed that he just couldn't read a book anymore. However he is hooked to reading emails, checking on Twitter, and scouring social media sites.
Because new information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, and this makes us feel great, which then compels your brain to ask for more dopamine, and hence you must go and find more new information.
Could we use this drug to impact how we teach and learn, and even enable us to read books or other long content pieces?
Dopamined and ready to learn
A study conducted on the impact of dopamine on learning found that mice who were dopamine deficient showed no evidence of learning on a task they were set, compared to those with dopamine.
The study concluded that the
“lack of dopamine results in a performance/motivational decrement that masks their learning competence.”
The key impact of dopamine is on motivation.
If you doubt it's power, then try be away from your mobile phone for a day, or don't look at any social media, news, or emails for a day.
For most of us this is not an easy thing to do. We miss our content. Often we miss it so much we even have to be on our digital devices while we're watching TV. The bottom line is that we are motivated by dopamine to come back again and again.
So how could this natural chemical be used in education?
There are many ways in which technology can be used to motivate learning through dopamine production, such as;
using social media,
creating digital content,
conversation-centric learning, etc.
Take gamification, as an example. Gamification seeks to use elements from games, especially elements that cause games to be so motivating, such as levels, challenges, rewards, etc. to motivate learning.
Gamification makes use of small reward cycles that get learners hooked into the learning experience.
The myth around dopamine is that it is produced when we are rewarded for our actions, like getting a badge for completing something. However this is not true. A challenge produces an achievement which results in pleasure because of dopamine being released.
The result is we seek another challenge, so we can have more achievement, and hence more pleasure/dopamine. It's not simply completing a game that attracts a gamer, but rather the cycle of getting through increasingly difficult levels.
The same applies in learning.
It is not the reward or badge in a gamified courses that is important, but getting through the challenges. Modern education focuses on the reward; the mark. Even gamified courses often do this with their focus on badges.
This is not what generates the high. It is the achievement itself.
High on Learning
There are two essential parts to motivating students to learn in our modern technological age:
“When we compare trials where people are highly curious to know an answer with trials where they are not, and look at the differences in brain activity, it beautifully follows the pathways in the brain that are involved in transmitting dopamine signals,” said Ranganath. “The activity ramps up and the amount it ramps up is highly correlated with how curious they are.”
A combination of novel activities,
with smaller chunking of tasks,
that potentially weave together to unlock stories, or levels, or further information,
will be highly motivating for learners.
As Ranganath concludes, “once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning.”
Maybe it's high time we prescribed dopamine rather than Ritalin to solve our education problems.
“Also: please note that we NEVER link to Wikipedia,” reads the email about an article for The Conversation Africa. I’m not surprised. The same sentiment is expressed in many course documents at universities and schools.
Wikipedia, the pariah of content resources, is frequently considered an unacceptable and unreliable source of information. It’s critiqued as being “a mish-mash of truth, half truth, and some falsehoods".
But, in 2005, the journal Nature conducted a study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica. The results showed that the average Wikipedia article had four errors while the average Britannica article had three. A more recent study found that:
What’s important about these studies is not Wikipedia’s accuracy rate. Rather, the research reminds us that all content contains errors.
Technology has changed the way we document, share and access knowledge. First came the shift from oral learning and communication to text. This meant that knowledge could be thought about carefully before it was recorded and transmitted. Once recorded it could be assessed and discussed even though the originator was not present. This increased the necessity for content to be correct before it was recorded.
Then the printing press was developed. Now written content could be replicated and shared almost without limit. Mistakes would be seen by even wider audiences, so once again correctness became crucial. The job of proofreader was even developed to guard against mistakes.
The next big advancement was the development of the computer. Now content that was recorded could be changed after the fact – a crucial change from paper-based content. Word processors, made popular by office suites like Microsoft Office, became common tools. Text could be cut and pasted, words inserted, deleted or changed, or additional content added. Proofreading was still necessary, but no longer as important. After all, content could be changed at any point in the process.
What word processors were to writing, the Internet became to printing. Now for the first time not only could content be digitally recorded, it could be shared almost without cost or limit. The explosion of content across billions of websites bears testimony to this.
We’ve always been correcting
As the research comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica shows, even printed content has errors. But before digital media, we deemed content to be correct simply because the feedback loop was much slower and not as obvious. The errors in those encyclopedias were corrected in subsequent editions – and, invariably, new ones would be introduced and have to be corrected in another edition down the line.
In academia, published research would eventually be read and critiqued. This would spark new research that improved on what was previously deemed as correct.
All of our scientific development and writing, at a meta level, has essentially been a huge wiki experience. Content evolves and improves as people read and add to it. So our disdain for wiki-type, correcting spaces is essentially a rejection of the process we’ve been undertaking for centuries. The main differences now are that the correcting cycle is far quicker and many more people have input.
From content to conversation
I’ve written this article as a process born of my modern technologies. I wrote a draft without being concerned about grammar or exact phrasing, because I knew I’d return to it later. Most important was the capturing of ideas and arguments. Even these were only partially formed and after each reading some were added while others were discarded.
The process of correcting continued until the piece was complete. Complete, but not correct – because this is itself just another voice in the conversation that is correcting as we continue. This is just a wiki of voices filled with content that is surely incorrect but right in our desire to keep improving.
We need to shift our conceptions of content. We need to shift our ideas of “correct”. We need to embrace an era where everything is in beta. Everything is correcting. Everything is in conversation. Wikipedia is the ultimate exemplar of such a space. Already, teachers are showing how effective it can be as a tool for learning once we change our perspective. It shatters the illusion of perfection and encourages creativity and critical thinking.
Our attempts to ban students (and writers) from using these modern digital spaces will inevitably fail. And, in the meantime, it will rob us of the opportunity to engage in conversation, rather than blind content consumption. Let the conversation continue.
The short post below, published on the blogging platform Medium, is not directly about teaching, but is important. It asks the question as to why we write - which should form a core part of any teaching and learning program. So...why do you write? Click the post below to find out the most important reason for writing.
Dr. Craig Blewett is the author and founder of the Activated Classroom Teaching (ACT) approach. He helps schools and universities around the world towards the effective use of educational technology.
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