My son Joshua (10) wants to know what it would cost to build a bridge between South Africa and Australia. That’s the third question in the last ten minutes. “I dunno,” I confess, and he replies: “But how much do you think?” I direct him to Google.
There’s just no getting away from young children’s questions. They are naturally inquisitive.
In my university lectures, it’s a different story. Wrapping up, I ask: “Right class, any questions?” Thirty silent seconds pass. “There must be a question. Anything?” More silence, and then a hand goes up. The student asks: “Umm, will this stuff be in the exam?”
That’s not the type of probing question I was hoping for. Children’s insatiable curiosity and search for new knowledge is getting lost somewhere along the way. Where have we mislaid the art of the question?
Seek and ye shall … get impatient?
More and more, children are being told to shut up, take notes and do well in tests. Participation is discouraged. This attitude follows them to university: former Yale professor William Deresiewicz complains in his book Excellent Sheep that “curiosity is dead”.
Deresiewicz believes that even elite schools are simply manufacturing students: they’re smart, they’re driven – but they have no intellectual curiosity. They don’t ask questions.
Former maths teacher and tech guru Dan Meyer agrees. Modern students are “impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly”, says Meyer. He explains:
There’s a strange paradox at work here. We live in an era where information is more freely available and easily accessible than ever before. Learning has, broadly speaking, evolved in three stages. First, knowledge resided in books or was held by experts. Students had to “knock” – to go looking – to find the answers. Then came Google, and with it students learned to “seek” because it was right there at their fingertips.
With the advent of Facebook and other social networks, we’ve entered the era of “ask”. Knowledge resides in the minds of the network, so students can just throw out a question on their Facebook page: “Hey guys, how would you answer this question that our professor set?”
My PhD research traced the impact of this shift by exploring student learning on Facebook. Students don’t read lengthy documents – like academic papers – any longer. They don’t go hunting for answers. They just put a question out to their network, sit back and wait for the answers to come their way.
There’s the paradox: in the online world, asking is ubiquitous. But offline, in spaces like the lecture theatre, asking questions is a dying art.
The quest for the question
There are several ways in which teachers and parents can instil a love of questions that will last a lifetime. Take my son’s bridge question. “Josh,” I say, “that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but it would be fascinating to find out. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about it? Why don’t you Google it and see what you can find?”
Now the kicker: “And while you’re searching, see if you can figure out what material would have to be used”. He looks at me for a moment, replies "OK”, grabs his phone and starts tapping away. We’re starting with one question and one answer – then going in search of more.
This building curiosity floods the brain with dopamine, which gives kids a positive push to learn and know more.
One recent study suggests that teaching children philosophy and guiding them through questions that lead to more questions has a positive impact on their progress with maths and reading.
For university students – like my silent class – one process of using questions to stimulate critical thinking and idea generation that works well is the Socratic method. This provides a space in class for questions, debates and for students to challenge their teachers and each other – respectfully.
In a research paper about the method, Sharon Jumper says that Socratic discussions are:
This technique is being applied well by a number of websites that flatten traditional classroom power structures. The sites try to encourage learning through questioning. Socrative, for instance, turns learning into a game: students compete through questions and answers.
Other sites like Socratic use gamification and also encourage students to put questions to the online community which has gathered there to learn. This sows the seeds of discussion – and paves the way for more questions.
Technology is a powerful way to get children and students asking questions. Researchers have found that widely available tools like WhatsApp can be used to encourage questions. Even the shyest person can be emboldened to use the messaging service rather than sticking their hand up in front of classmates.
In a world full of questions desperately needing answers, isn’t it high time that we reignited the dying art of asking questions?
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.
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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