I recently made a presentation about learning, engagement and gamification to educators at the Learning and the Brain Conference in New York City. I asked the audience to name the most common word their students use to describe school. I expected to hear a variety of responses but everyone said the same word “boring”.
To make sure everyone agreed with those who spoke up, so I asked the audience to raise their hands if they agreed with that word. All hands went up.
This is perplexing because learning is fundamental to our existence. Humans are hardwired to enjoy learning – it’s in our genes. Our ancestors who naturally enjoyed hunting and mating, and who enjoyed practicing them and learning to do them well, fed themselves and their families and survived. Their less fortunate colleagues who were less motivated starved, were killed or otherwise did not pass their genes down to future generations.
Think about a hobby or a passion of yours. Maybe you love your job and you enjoy getting better at it. Learning more about your passion and gaining expertise doesn’t feel like work. It’s enjoyable. Hours fly by. When learning is relevant and important to you and you possess a certain mastery of prior knowledge of the subject, learning truly enjoyable. The natural hormone and neurotransmitter dopamine is released by nerve cells and neural pathways are created making the learning permanent and enjoyable.
So if learning and developing skills is inherently a pleasurable activity, why do students describe school as boring? Because the information they are supposed to be learning is either too easy (they already know it), too difficult (they don’t have the requisite prior knowledge), or it they don’t find the information or the subject relevant to them.
How can educators put the fun back into learning? The most important technique is individualized learning. However the concept is overused, misused and abused. Individualized means that each student is working at their own pace and within their own zone of proximal development. This is the place where learning is pleasantly challenging, not easy, but not frustrating. There is a level of mastery of skills that precedes what the student is learning at the moment that gives the material relevance. That exact place is as unique to each person as his or her own identity. Unfortunately most of today’s so-called individualized learning programs simply make students work on their own. In schools today individualized means alone. That’s an abuse of the true concept of individualized learning, which when properly implemented can be a highly social experience. For example, a classroom of students using SkateKids is abuzz with students sharing and collaborating. Additionally, if the learning system cannot identify and monitor the student’s learning zone then the student is probably almost always bored or frustrated.
So how do educators know if the technology based program they are considering using will truly individualize learning, engage students and be effective? You must get answers to the following questions about the program:
Does the program adapt to each student’s individual level?
Does the program provide ongoing assessment and continuous feedback to the student?
Does the program ensure the students demonstrates competency before moving on?
Does the program offer scientific proof of efficacy and engagement?
Does the program have proof of effectiveness at scale?
Does the program facilitate social interaction among its users?
If you critically analyze most of the computer based learning programs available today you will find that most do not fare well when analyzed this way. If you speak someone representing a computer-based program that cannot answer these questions then show them the door.