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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The popularity of video games is not the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching strategies. Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.

Dopamine Motivation

The human brain, much like that of most mammals, has hardwired physiological responses that had survival value at some point in evolutionary progression. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain's recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released in higher than usual amounts, goes beyond the synapse and flows to other regions of the brain producing a powerful pleasure response. This is a deep satisfaction, such as quenching a long thirst. After making a prediction, choice, or action, and receiving feedback that it was correct, the reward from the release of dopamine prompts the brain seek future opportunities to repeat the action. For animal survival, this promotes life or species-sustaining choices and behaviors, such as following a new scent that leads to a mate or a meal and remembering that scent the next time it is present.

No Pain, No Gain

The survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system is building skills and adaptive responses. The system is only activated and available to promote, sustain, or repeat some mental or physical effort when the outcome is not assured. If there is no risk, there is no reward. If there is no challenge, such as adding single digit numbers by a student who has achieved mastery in adding double-digit numbers, there is activation of the dopamine-reward network.

In humans, the dopamine reward response that promotes pleasure and motivation also requires that they are aware that they solved a problem, figured out a puzzle, correctly answered a challenging question, or achieved the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why students need to use what they learn in authentic ways that allow them to recognize their progress as clearly as they see it when playing video games.

Awareness of Incremental Goal Progress

In a sequential, multilevel video game, feedback of progress is often ongoing, such as accumulating points, visual tokens, or celebratory sound effects, but the real jolt of dopamine reward is in response to the player achieving the challenge, solution, sequence, etc. needed to progress to the next and more challenging level of the game. When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable. In other words, memory of the mental or physical response used to achieve the dopamine reward is reinforced.

It may seem counter intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for doing well on a homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they devoted considerable physical or mental energy. Yet, that is just what the video playing brain seeks after experiencing the pleasure of reaching a higher level in the game. A computer game doesn't hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine -- the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.

Individualized Achievable Challenge

Individualized achievable challenge level is one where a task, action, or choice is not so easy as to be essentially automatic or 100% successful. When that is the case the brain is not alert for feedback and there is no activation of the dopamine reward response system. The task must also not be perceived as so difficult that there is no chance of success. It is only when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward circuit.

fMRI and cognitive studies reveal that the brain "evaluates" the probability of effort resulting in success before expending the cognitive effort in solving mental problems. If the challenge seems too high, or students have a fixed mindset related past failures that they will not succeed in a subject or topic, the brain is not likely to expend the effort needed to achieve the challenge.

Brain effort is costly because this three-pound organ needs 20% of the body's supply of oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. The brain operates to conserve its resources unless the energy cost is low or the expectation of reward is high. In the classroom, that is the ideal level of instructional challenge for student motivation.

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback. Students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range of perceived achievable challenge, reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games.

Feedback or scaffolding may be needed to support students' perception that the challenge is achievable, but the levels of mastery are rarely the same for every student in the class. This is when we need to provide opportunities for differentiating and individualizing. These interventions range from clearly scaled rubrics, to small flexible groups for "as needed" support, or collaborative groups through which students can "enter" from their strengths. Descriptions of these strategies, beyond the scope of this article, are found in differentiated instruction literature.

Game Entry Point is a Perfect Fit Through Pre-assessment and Feedback

The best on-line learning programs for building students' missing foundational knowledge use student responses to structure learning at individualized achievable challenge levels. These programs also provide timely corrective and progress-acknowledging feedback that allows the students to correct mistakes, build understanding progressively, and recognize their incremental progress.

The classroom model can follow suit. Video games with levels of play allow the player to progress quickly through early levels if the gamer already has the skill needed. Gamers reportedly make errors 80% of the time, but the most compelling games give hints, cues, and other feedback so players' brains have enough expectation of dopamine reward to persevere. The games require practice for the specific skills the player needs to master, without the off-putting requirement to repeat tasks already mastered. This type of game keeps the brain engaged because the dopamine surge is perceived to be within reach if effort and practice are sustained.

Good games give players opportunities for experiencing intrinsic reward at frequent intervals, when they apply the effort and practice the specific skills they need to get to the next level. The games do not require mastery of all tasks and the completion of the whole game before giving the brain the feedback for dopamine boosts of satisfaction. The dopamine release comes each time the game provides feedback that the player's actions or responses are correct. The player gains points or tokens for small incremental progress and ultimately the powerful feedback of the success of progressing to the next level. This is when players seek "harder work". To keep the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction going, the brain needs a higher level of challenge, because staying at a level once mastery is achieved doesn't release the dopamine.

Bringing Incremental Progress Recognition to the Classroom... and Beyond

In the classroom, the video model can be achieved with timely, corrective feedback so students recognize incorrect foundational knowledge and then have opportunities to strengthen the correct new memory circuits through practice and application. However, individualized instruction, assignments, and feedback, that allow students to consistently work at their individualized achievable challenge levels, are time-consuming processes not possible for teachers to consistently provide all students.

What we can do is be aware of the reason the brain is so responsive to video game play and keep achievable challenge and incremental progress feedback in mind when planning units of instruction. One way to help each student sustain motivation and effort is to shift progress recognition to students themselves. This can be done by having students use a variety of methods of recording their own progress toward individualized goals. Through brief conferences, goals can be mutually agreed upon, such as number of pages read a week (with comprehension accountability), progression to the next level of the multiplication tables, or achievement of a higher level on a rubric for writing an essay. Free bar graphs downloaded from the Internet can be filled in by students as they record and see evidence of their incremental goal progress. In contrast to the system of recognition delayed until a final product is completed, graphing reveals the incremental progress evidence throughout the learning process. I've found that for students who have lost confidence to the point of not wanting to risk more failure, it is helpful to start the effort-to-progress record keeping and graphing with something they enjoy, such as shooting foul shots or computer keyboarding speed and accuracy.

Immediate Gratification or Long-term Goal Pursuit?

Compared to an adult brain, a young brain needs more frequent dopamine boosts to sustain effort, persevere through challenges and setbacks, and build the trait of resilience. The brain's prefrontal cortex, with its executive functions (judgment, analysis, delay of immediate gratification, prioritizing, planning, etc.) will be the subject of a future blog. In relation to the video game model, it is important to plan instruction keeping in mind that the executive function circuits are late to mature - well into the twenties. The visible evidence seen on their graphs or rubric progress evidence helps students develop the concept that effort toward a goal brings progress. This, in turn, builds their capacity to resist their young brain's strong drive for immediate gratification. As students use visible models to recognize their incremental goal progress, they build the executive function of goal-directed behavior.

Classroom instruction that provides opportunities for incremental progress feedback at students' achievable challenge levels pays off with increased focus, resilience, and willingness to revise and persevere toward achievement of goals. The development of students' awareness of their potentials to achieve success, through effort and response to feedback, extends far beyond the classroom walls. Your application of the video game model to instruction encourages the habits of mind through which your students can achieve their highest academic, social, and emotional potentials.

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Jenny Park's picture

This article provided scientific evidence that showed that video games are not as harmful as critics claim for it to be. I never would have thought that video games could actually be educational and beneficial to children if they incorporate the proper incremental goals and achievable challenge levels. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that seems to push players to continually strive for a higher achievement of goal. Video games are a great way for students to track if they are improving and reaching their goals. In this article, I also learned that it is good to have video games that are more challenging because it makes children work harder to achieve higher levels or more points. Video games are also easy to fit to each child's individual challenges and needs because they provide immediate feedback and provide hints and cues for the students to succeed.

I think it was a great idea to use the same concept of video games in an authentic classroom experience by making sure students keep and achieve individualized goals. Teachers should also provide effective feedback. This will keep students motivated and learn how to persevere through tough challenges in learning.

Eric Carrier's picture

I love the concept! It is very counter intuitive that harder work would be a reward, but this video game model makes perfect sense. I have played video games of various kinds and platforms most of my life and never considered that "next level" harder work. It was always a rewarding challenge. This article gives us the science behind what should have been obvious. I'm a parent and I've never discouraged video game use (time limits, but never the act). I've always felt video games could have a productive place in children's lives. I'm really looking forward to planning out and trying to put this model to use in a classroom. The idea that children will not only want more challenges, but crave them is exhilarating.

Daniel B's picture

I think you are on to something. To see the way children obsess over video games, it almost seems obvious the use the technique and strategy this billion dollar industry uses to get children hooked. Your insight into the brain functionality during video game stimuli in children is awesome. I mean you think about why they enjoy it and most parents just scratch their heads in wonder, you have put a clear answer into the hands of thousands of aimless parents. Thank you

Amy P's picture

This is a very exciting and interesting article. Adults view video games so negatively, but kids love them so much. It's great to see someone dissect a video game and find out why kids like them so much and then come up with ways to apply that information to help kids in school. Kids would learn so much more if they could take that motivation they have for video games and use it for school and learning.

Dana Van Horn's picture

I think this is incredible! Children spend hours playing video games not realizing they are actually working. If this could be applied to the classroom, students would have greater opportunites for success. It is really exciting to hear something positive about video games. As a parent, I have struggled with this issue with my own children.

Michele Smith-Walden's picture

Most people would not have connected video games to learning or to anything else. Once presented it makes complete sense. This can also be used in other life challenges that children go through in life. About 20 years ago there was an educational video game that was produced by Saga called Pico. My niece, nephews and daughter all played with this game as an introduction to reading, writing, math and motor skills such as; hand-eye coordination, patterns and matching. Just like television video games stimulate the brain and it's not all bad. I recall several years ago there was a jeopardy game that teachers could purchase for their classrooms I always thought that would be a great way to review or study for an exam. This is just one more way that video games can be good for children.

Monique Gillaspy's picture

This article was such an interesting piece that I really enjoyed reading. All the statements and comments that were made throughout her article were very insightful. While reading it, I caught myself even thinking how true the comments were but had never crossed my mind because using a video game model approach in teaching seemed ridiculous. Having a release of dopamine can be important and her acknowledgement of that helped me understand how this video game model can benefit us as educators.

Michelle B's picture

I think this article is interesting! It gives better insight as to why some seem so addicted anyways. I think if you can reach a student in a way that seems interesting to them is always effective and the best way to go.

Sasha Rousey's picture

I liked the article, as parents and educators we tend to think as video games as bad, and detrimental to children, but children do learn best when they are doing something they want to, and there are so many new learning games that make children want to learn more so that they can acheive the goal of the game which is to win.

Sarah Tanner's picture

I have always thought that video games are one of the worst things invented, but after reading this article i feel very different. Everything that was said made complete since. I never thought about it in a way that will satisfy the child when he or she gets to the next level, or succeeds and wins. It is something that they will remember and learn from because they worked hard for it. The classroom is so similar to the way a child plays video games.

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