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How using games of chance in the classroom could stimulate the brains of learners

The last decade has seen increased efforts to bring cognitive neuroscience and education together in dialogue. This may be due to anxieties over the “parallel world” of pseudo-neuroscience,1but it may also be because of new insights arising from neuroscience with genuine value for education.2 Indeed, neuroscientists appear increasingly willing to speculate on the possible relevance of their work to “real-world” learning, albeit from a vantage point on its peripheries.3 However, seeking meaningful relationships between neural processes and the types of complex everyday learning behaviours we can observe in classrooms presents a challenge. One thing that appears clear from the outset is that a simple transmission model (in which neuroscientists advise educators on their practice, or developers on their products) is unlikely to be effective. Neuroscientists are rarely experienced in considering classroom practice, and neuroscience cannot provide instant solutions for teachers. Instead, research is needed to bridge the gap between laboratory and classroom. To emphasize the key role of educational values and thinking in the design and execution of such a venture, researchers at the University of Bristol have used the term “neuroeducational research.”

One of the key challenges of using neuroscience in the classroom lies in connecting neurobiology, which can illuminate processes that happen in the brain at unconscious and conscious levels, and the behaviour of students in the classroom. It can therefore be helpful to think of learning as a series of interactions between the brain, the mind (made up of conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings), and behaviour. While it seems obvious that the brain can influence the mind, and that the mind can dictate behaviour, it is less easy to imagine that the behaviour of a learner may influence how the brain functions. Surprisingly, cognitive neuroscience tells us that experiences – including those of students in the classroom – can change the connectivity, function, and even structure of the brain. This research gained public attention when a study of London taxi drivers showed that the longer a driver had spent navigating London’s streets, the larger the volume of the driver’s posterior hippocampus (a part of the brain thought to be involved in the “laying down” of information to be learned).4 The plasticity of the brain therefore puts teachers in an influential position, as their lessons have the potential to change the biology that supports how their students think.

Technology and the “flow” state

Technology-enhanced learning (TEL) is one area where neuroscience may offer accessible insights into classroom practice.5 Children already have daily interaction with technologies designed to teach new skills, in the form of video games. The state of focus that players enter when participating in such games has been referred to as “flow,” and can be thought of as an optimal state of concentration and productivity. In order to stimulate the feeling of flow, a task needs to provide immediate feedback, a sense of an achievable (but not too easy) challenge, and be intrinsically enjoyable. Meeting these criteria in the classroom can have a significant effect on student attitudes and behaviour, with a study of high-school students showing that those experiencing a specially designed flow condition (high challenge and high student skill level) reported significantly higher levels of engagement, attention, intensity, mood, and motivation when compared to an apathy condition (low challenge, low student skill level). Significantly for teachers, students reported responding to instruction 73 percent of the time in the flow condition, compared with 42 percent of the time in the apathy condition. When combined with initiatives designed to introduce technology such as tablet computers and interactive whiteboards into the classroom, the concept of using the flow state generated by games as a learning tool is becoming increasingly possible.6

Video games can induce the flow state by providing feedback after each move the player makes (such as scores and level progress), an appropriate challenge (by playing against the computer or other players) and an intrinsic feeling of fun (games that aren’t fun tend not to be played – although veterans of family board-game nights may disagree!). Adaptation of video games to enable their use as a TEL tool is not entirely straightforward, however, as the “learning objectives” of most games do not overlap with the material that students learn in schools. One potential route to introducing games into classroom practice is to uncover the neurocognitive processes involved in game playing, and then design teaching tools to stimulate these processes directly. Recent research into the brains of learners has led to a more complete understanding of the neuroscience of game-playing, and is being used as a basis for the design of new, neuroscience-inspired approaches to TEL.

What do we know about the brains of gamers?

The mechanisms underlying engagement with games have been illuminated by recent neuroscience research, and have been found to include one of our most fundamental neural pathways: the dopamine reward pathway (DRP). The DRP is activated when we desire something, whether it be chocolate or winning a game, causing a “spike” in the activity of dopaminergic neurons (neurons that use dopamine as a neurotransmitter). These dopamine “spikes” are correlated with activity in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which is thought to process reward, pleasure and motivation in the brain. Players of video games have been shown to have elevated levels of activity in the nucleus accumbens, suggesting that whatever glues our noses to games consoles during game-playing may be related to increased dopamine activity in this region of the brain.7

Sci-napse: Neuroscience-informed teaching

One way in which playing a game differs from traditional teaching is in the inclusion of an element of unpredictability or chance, such as the roll of dice or the behaviour of a competitor. The element of chance may be fundamental to our enjoyment of games, as the levels of activity in the DRP have been found to be elevated in the primate brain when presented with an uncertain reward. An increase in activity related to increased midbrain dopamine occurs when primates observe a stimulus alerting them to imminent “certain” rewards (e.g. a visual pattern is seen that has always preceded a drop of honey being dispensed) or when they receive an unexpected reward (a drop of honey with no prior visual warning). However, when a stimulus is seen that has preceded a reward on 50 percent of prior occasions, there is a brief burst of activity when the visual pattern is seen, as with the certain reward, but then activity ramps up until the outcome is known and the reward is received (or not).8 This suggests there is more midbrain dopamine, which is associated with motivation, for uncertain rewards than for either wholly expected or wholly unexpected rewards. The presence of high levels of midbrain dopamine activity in the brain has been linked to improved learning, so this research suggests that the time leading up to an anticipated but uncertain reward could be a very valuable teachable moment, in which the brain is in a state that is receptive to learning.

Although this research suggests that uncertain rewards may be a useful tool in teaching and learning, the classroom environment is traditionally a place where reward is designed to be “certain”: hard work or correct answers should always be rewarded. This ideal of fairness is enshrined as a gold standard of teaching practice, with U.K. teacher standards stipulating that a teacher must use “praise, sanctions and rewards consistently and fairly.”9 While this approach appears logical, recent research suggests that students may not find it as engaging as an approach that allows for the inclusion of uncertainty. In a study by Howard-Jones et al, U.K. primary school students were asked whether they preferred to receive a question from “Mr. Certain,” from whom they always received a point when they correctly answered a question, or from “Mr. Uncertain,” who would spin a wheel and allocate either 0 points or 2 points for a correct answer.10 The majority of students expressed a preference for Mr. Uncertain, suggesting that students were experiencing a similar increase in dopamine activity as was found in the primate study.

With the aim of investigating the potential of uncertain reward in the classroom further, Howard-Jones and his colleagues used pedagogical feedback from teachers to develop a game “app” that can be used in everyday teaching practice. This app is available for free at www.zondle.com, and uses an optional “wheel of fortune” to allow the teams with correct answers to choose whether they want to sacrifice points for the opportunity to “double-or-nothing.” As you might expect, the introduction of a competitive gaming environment has resulted in some exciting and dramatic lessons in the test classes. Teachers found that students became more animated, and “sport talk” began to break out among the teams – with winning teams joyously exclaiming “we’re just too good!” and losing teams commiserating that “we just haven’t had any good rolls.” One notable difference from the usual classroom environment was the tendency of winning teams to attribute success to skill, and losing teams to blame their failures on chance.11 This is an encouraging sign that the games-based classroom is one where students can fail “safely,” without damaging their self-esteem. Overall, classroom trials have suggested that the competitive desire to beat classmates at the game induces high levels of motivation and engagement.

The results from small-scale trials of games-based learning have been very promising, but we do not yet know if it will be as successful when used on a large scale, or over a long period of time. In order to find out, a large-scale project called “Sci-napse” (NeuroSCience-INformed APproaches to Science Education) has begun, backed by funding from the Educational Endowment Fund (EEF) and Wellcome Trust. Sci-napse will involve testing a games-based approach similar to zondle team play in the science classrooms of over 70 U.K. schools, involving over 10,000 Year 8 pupils (aged 12-13). In the final part of the project, classes in the games-based group will be taught an entire year of science using the approach, in order to provide a true test of the effectiveness of uncertain rewards in the classroom. While the project is only open to U.K. schools, we would encourage all teachers to try zondle team play in their own classrooms, and experience the fun and excitement that games-based learning can bring to the classroom.

En Bref – Bien qu’actuellement sous-utilisé, le domaine de la neuroscience a beaucoup à offrir au monde de l’enseignement. L’une des façons d’intégrer les principes neuroscientifiques à l’enseignement en classe consiste à utiliser des jeux de hasard. Les humains peuvent parvenir à un état de grande concentration, appelé « flux », lorsqu’ils sont absorbés dans des jeux. Il a été démontré qu’il s’agit d’un bon outil en classe. La recherche a également établi que des récompenses « incertaines » (par exemple, l’attribution de points en fonction d’un lancer de dés) prolongent l’activité de la dopamine dans les régions du cerveau qui traitent les récompenses, la motivation et le plaisir. L’activité accrue de la dopamine a été liée à un codage plus efficace de l’information, ce qui laisse supposer un meilleur apprentissage. Pour vérifier le potentiel des jeux de hasard en classe, le projet Sci-napse, auquel participent 10 000 élèves du secondaire du Royaume-Uni, vient d’être amorcé.

Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, September 2015

1 Misconceptions about the brain or “neuromyths” remain a persistent problem in education – see P. A. Howard-Jones, “Neuroscience and Education: Myths and messages,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience (2014).

2 For a good summary of some promising developments in Neuroscience and Education in the past decade, see OECD, Understanding the Brain: Birth of a new learning science (Paris: OECD, 2007). 

3 Howard-Jones, Neuroscience and Education.

4 E. A. Maguire, et al., “Navigation Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 97, no. 8 (2000): 4398-4403. 

5 For a summary of the potential applications of neuroscience and technology in education, see P. Howard-Jones et al., “The Potential Relevance of Cognitive Neuroscience for the Development and Use of Technology-enhanced Learning,” Learning Media and Technology 40, no. 2 (2015): 131-151.

6 For more information about the “flow” state and its application in the classroom, see M. Csikszentmihalyi and I. S. Csikszentmihalyi, Optimal Experience (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and D. Shernoff et al., “Student Engagement in High School Classrooms from the Perspective of Flow Theory,” School Psychology Quarterly 18, no. 2 (2003): 18.

7 A follow-up study of game-playing adults: C. H. Ko et al., “Brain Activities Associated with Gaming Urge of Online Gaming Addiction,” Journal of Psychiatric Research 43, no. 7 (2009): 739-747. 

8 The original experiment involving chimpanzees: C. D. Fiorillo, P. N. Tobler, and W. Schultz, “Discrete Coding of Reward Probability and Uncertainty by Dopamine Neurons” Science 299 (2003): 1898-1902.

9 Teacher’s Standards: Guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies (U. K. Dept. for Education, 2011).

10 For a full summary of the experiments using games in the classroom: P. A. Howard-Jones and S. Demetriou, “Uncertainty and Engagement with Learning Games,” Instructional Science37, no. 6 (2009): 519-536. 

11 Howard-Jones and Demetriou, “Uncertainty and Engagement with Learning Games.”

Meet the Expert(s)

Paul Howard-Jones

Paul Howard-Jones is Professor of Neuroscience and Education at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol (U.K.), and the author of Introducing Neuroeducational Research(2010, Routledge). His research interests lie at the interface of cognitive neuroscience with educational theory, practice and policy. He was a member of the U.K.’s Royal Society Working Group on Neuroscience and Education that published its report in 2011.

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Katie Blakemore

Katie Blakemore is a Researcher in the field of Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol (U.K.), with a background in secondary science teaching. She has been an avid gamer since the age of eight.

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