Educators educating Educators

Feb 18

May 17 Predictions

Last month Ed Tip examined the design principles of video games that cause them to be become popular with teenagers, namely achievable challenge, the role of dopamine in learning, the value of positive and constant feedback towards goal achievement, and ensuring there are no penalties for mistakes made during a learning activity.

This month’s Ed Tip will expand upon the role of dopamine in learning and explore classroom activities, namely predictions, that will boost its output.

Let’s start this month’s Ed Tip with a question: Would you rather having one cent doubled every day for 30 days or $1,000,000.00?

To help demonstrate the topic of this article, namely, the value of have students make predictions, the answer will appear at the end of this article.

In 1860 Alfred Brim put a covered box of snakes in a cage of monkeys living in a zoo, writes Wendy Ostroff in her book titled Cultivating Curiously in K-12 Classrooms. The reason this is interesting is because wild monkeys have been taught by fellow monkeys to fear snakes. When the monkeys lifted the lid and saw the snakes, they were terrified. However, after a few minutes and in spite of their fear, they could not resist and went back to the box and lifted the lid again to take another look at the snakes. The results were so striking that the experiment came to the attention of Charles Darwin who duplicated the study in a zoo and found the same results.

A July 2016 article in Scientific American examines research that indicates the human desire to know is more powerful than previously understood. The study, conducted by behavioral scientists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Wisconsin School of Business, demonstrated that students were willing to expose themselves to adverse stimuli in an effort to satisfy curiosity. The researchers summarized the results that “the need to know is so strong that people will seek to satisfy their curiosity even when it is clear that the answer will hurt them.”

In one trial, each participant was shown a pile of pens that the researcher claimed were from a previous experiment. The twist? Half the pens would deliver an electrical shock when clicked. Twenty-seven students were told which pens were rigged; another 27 were only told that some were electrified. When left alone in the room, the students who did not know which ones would shock them clicked more pens and incurred more jolts than the students who knew what would happen. Subsequent experiments replicated this effect with other stimuli, such as the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard and photographs of repulsive insects.

“The drive to discover is deeply ingrained in humans, on par with the basic drives for food or sex”, says Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago and co-author of the paper.

The insight that curiosity can drive you to do self-destructive things is a profound one” says George Lowenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has pioneered the scientific study of curiosity.

According to Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist and a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning and author of various books and articles, suggests the use of prediction in the classroom to increase students’ attention and interest caused by the brain’s need to know if the prediction is correct.

For an understanding of the reason behind this process, an understanding of the role of dopamine, which plays an enormous role in education, is needed.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical signaling molecule in the brain that brings on a sensation of joy and delight resulting in reinforcement to motivate a person to perform certain activities. Dopamine is the "reward" neurochemical responsible for motivation, learning and desire

Dopamine release is caused by rewarding experiences such as food (particularly ones containing high fats and sugars), sex, and drugs. In her writings, Judy Willis submits the following activities increase dopamine levels: positive interactions with peers, enjoying music, being read to, acting kindly, expressing gratitude, humor, optimism, choice, movement, and feeling the intrinsic satisfaction of accurate predictions and challenges achieved.

Dopamine has an immense effect on the prefrontal cortex, a dopamine-rich brain region. Often referred to as the executive center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), located in the very front of the brain just behind the forehead, is in charge of higher level thinking skills such as thought analysis, regulating behavior, making choices between right and wrong, and predicting the probable outcomes of actions or events.

The neuroscientist Willis posits that the need to know is the result of a prediction activating the PFC, resulting in its anticipation of receiving a feel good reward - squirt of dopamine.

Making a prediction is one of the most reliable and efficient ways to prime and stoke the reward circuitry of the brain. "Every prediction you make — no matter how trivial — increases the level of the dopamine in your brain," says Willis.

Every time you make a prediction, two rewarding outcomes are possible. You might be right — which will feel good since a correct prediction increases dopamine in the PFC.

Or, you might be wrong which causes a drop-in dopamine-pleasure. However, making a mistake is a good thing for our survival because this is the way the brain changes itself to avoid future mistakes by giving you the information that will help you make a better prediction next time. Surprisingly, the possibility of being wrong also feels good — because your brain loves learning. "In fact," Dr. Willis says, "the dopamine boost is often greater when you learn something new and useful than when you succeed."

An incorrect prediction, often referred to as corrective feedback, results in revised neural networks due to neoplastic changes in involved neurons, Willis theorizes.

Neuroplasticity strengths the neural pathways by causing changes in the myelin sheath that surrounds axons and by creating more dendrites and synapses. Due to these changes, memories become more durable and stored information is more efficiently retrieved. This process is often referred to by neuroscientists as “neurons that fire together wire together,” a phrase that defines plasticity. Educators also have a phase for this process, namely, “practice makes permanent.”

The following activity will demonstrate that neurons are wired together.

First, while sitting, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles. Next, while doing this, draw the number ‘6’ in the air with your right hand. Did you notice your foot changed direction, and it will do it again every time?

As mentioned in last month’s article, the gorilla in the classroom is a student’s fear of making a mistake in a whole class setting. Using predictions as a teaching technique is an assured way to reduce the fear of making a mistake caused by a wrong answer, increase student participation, and increase the risk-taking by students.

Activities that will lead to increased prediction in the classroom are class discussion starting with current events of high interest that connect to the current unit or topic, asking students what they learned about the topic in other courses, book chapter review, estimation, plot prediction, bulletin boards, and guest speakers.

Another technique that will lead to an increasing student participation is using questions with no wrong answers such as …

Duck or Rabbit?

One major benefit of using predictions in the classroom is the activation of prior knowledge, a commonly noted best teaching practice. When a prediction is made, the brain recalls prior knowledge while simultaneously analyzing the new information, looking for and recognizing associations between the new information and prior knowledge.

Additionally, since predictions use existing patterns (categories of prior related knowledge), they are essential in predicting and formulating the best response to a new experience.

A region of the brain called the striatum is involved in rewards processing, learning about rewards and using that information to make decisions that help guide behavior, and then updating the brain as to whether a reward is better or worse than prior expectations.

A final point made by Willis is the distinction between passive learning and active learning. She believes that “passive learning is an oxymoron.” Willis uses Edwin E. Slosson’s quote to describe passive leaning, “A process of information transfer from the professor’s notes to the student’s notes without ever passing through the brains of either.”

Naturally, active learning is the preferred learning method and active learning requires student participation. An advantage of the use of predictions is it can lead to “active learning,” and the curiosity created by a prediction changes passive inattention to attentive student participation

In a September 2015 article titled Why Making Predictions About Your Day Will Improve Your Outlook, Jane McGonigal makes the point “the neurochemistry of prediction is the same neurochemistry that makes video games so engaging and energizing. You know that feeling of irrational motivation you get when you've failed the same Candy Crush Saga level ten times in a row and you just want to try one more time anyway? Or how you can be totally exhausted and burnt out after a hard day, and then after twenty minutes of playing Call of Duty you feel totally energized and mentally focused?

That's because every time you make a move, or fire a weapon, in a video game, your brain treats it like a mini-prediction. Your brain is eagerly waiting to find out if your action was successful, and if not, why not, so you can take a better action. This means that each move you make in a game triggers a dopamine spike. The more moves you make, the bigger the cascade of dopamine. No wonder it's so easy to work so hard and never give up when we play. We're benefitting from a constant flow of the neurochemical that increases attention, optimism and determination.”

Now for the answer asked at the beginning of this article. But first, do you feel a sense of a need to know, anticipation, or anxiety caused by the PFC waiting for its reward?

Penny answer

Not only are predictions fun and uncomplicated to use in the classroom, their use by educators unleashes “the human desire to know,” while at the same time engaging “the drive to discover” that is “deeply ingrained in humans.” Predictions bring into practice the proved addicting aspects of video games that capitalize on the neuroscience of the brain and its constant striving for a reward – a squirt of dopamine.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.