How we learn pt 4: Oregon Trail and Incentivized Learning

To join the conversation it might be helpful to read the other posts in this series.
How we learn pt. 1: Neural anatomy and the 15 minute teapot
How we learn pt. 2: Expanding the super highway of your mind
How we learn pt. 3: Empathy in the classroom

A teacher's challenge is to clue the student's brain to make neural pathways that can be reinforced for a durable memory. In this series I have focused on three methods for completing this challenge; repetitious exercises (building muscle memory by creating sets of objects), creating systems of thought (connecting new ideas with previous knowledge), and learning under dramatic stimulation (learning outside the comfort zone). I want to highlight a few more examples of each while discussing incentive systems that reward learning.

Of the three I mentioned, repetition is the most straight forward form of learning. The teacher administers a task and the student repeats the task until they are comfortable recalling the information. Unfortunately repetition can be one of the least engaging forms of learning. An exercise decreases in strength as the student looses interest. Think back to the boredom of elementary math class where you had to repeat problems over and over. I spent many days wanting to bang my head against the desk to prevent the numbing effects of multiplication tables. To break the monotony of repetition an incentive based assignment can be devised. The teacher harnesses the student's own desire for the reward to motivate them to complete the task. In a tutoring situation for younger children candy, or any sweet treat, could represent numbers in the student's daily problems. If the student successfully multiplies the red jelly beans by the green jelly beans eight out of ten times then they get to eat one bean. Beyond motivation the advantage of the sweet treat approach is that numbers move out of the abstract when objects represent their value. Using real objects engages parts of the brain that would be less active in a pen-to-paper exercise. In the public school arena, where a non food reward is more practical the student, could be rewarded with extra time playing an educational computer game. Anyone remember the computer stone age when Oregon Trail was the most popular educational game?

Competition can also be helpful in pushing a group of students out of the repetition rut. Partially replacing the standard ceramic production assignment with a skills based competition can be an engaging motivator. Instead of a class making 20 vase forms the goal could be to warm up with 10 before having a contest to see who can make the tallest vase. After the competition another 10 forms would be assigned to compare the difference before and after the competition. Two winners, one for tallest vase and one for most improvement, would be rewarded with a new horsehair brush for painting.  Even shy students can be sucked into the entertainment of wobbly vases being stretched to their maximum height. When focused on an incentive students push past their own perceived limits. A physical competition encourages the individual to observe their fellow participant's methods, which can broaden their skill base.

The second method I mentioned is expanding understanding by creating systems of information. In the previous post I highlighted teaching with metaphors. A slight hiccup with this method is that the student might not understand the individual parts of the metaphor, therefore loosing the comparison embedded in the example. This happens to me all the time when I use sports metaphors with Chinese students that don't play western sports. One way around the confusion is to set up a student teacher role reversal. In this exercise the class is broken into small groups where each student is given the directive to use an example from their experience to explain the topic (i.e. observations of color theory principles in everyday life.) One by one the students rotate through being both instructor and student. The head teacher can reinforce the lesson by visiting each group and offering insight. This seminar style format is great for creating ownership in educational environments as well as encouraging the students to connect new ideas to their own experience.

The last method I mentioned is using dramatic stimuli to engage student awareness. The core of this method is harnessing the stimulated brain's ability to take in large amounts of information in a short amount of time. The emotional tension created by a new experience effectively primes the brain for input. Unfortunately the brain is not always selective in what it takes in. For instance think back to the first time you kissed someone. What do you remember about that experience? If there was music playing do you remember the song? I bet you remember details of that experience that in hindsight don't seem that important. Why did your brain use it's precious neural capacity to remember the color of that person's shirt? The easy answer is that it didn't know it wasn't supposed too. Our hormone stimulated brain can be impartial to the type of stimulation we receive.

(When looking for a semi-cheesy kiss photo I found a great article questioning if men better remember their first girlfriend or their first car. My first car was a grey 1991 Subaru Legacy. My first girl...had brown hair... I think. Click here for a funny read.)

In practice dramatic stimuli can be anything that takes the learner outside of the normal perimeters of their daily life. Changing the physical learning environment is one way to trigger an increase in attention and retention. Hands-on workshops are a common example of changing location to enhance learning. I recently visited a ceramic symposium where 21 artists gathered at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts to exchange surface design techniques. The ceramic world is prone to communal gatherings like this for many reasons, including social networking, relaxation and not least of all education. When we leave the comfort zone of our studios/classrooms we pay closer attention to the people and environment around us.

The larger point of this blog series is that a teacher armed with an understanding of brain function can engineer a more potent learning experience. I never want to be the teacher whose students say "I didn't learn anything in that class." I share equal responsibility with my students during the course of a class. I want every student to absorb as much information as they are willing to handle. Employing repetition, expansion and dramatic stimuli are just a few of the methods that create the neural pathways that encode our ideas. After listening to Radio Lab's Memory and Forgetting I am glad to know that at least some of the information I give students is being physically encoded in their brains. Now wither they remember any of it five years from now is whole other story.

The series How we Learn was inspired by WNYC's Radio Lab, a podcast that often tackles how our brain works. I recommend listening to Memory and Forgetting and Sleep, two great shows from season three. For more information please visit http://www.radiolab.org.

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