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July 3, 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 20
Table of Contents
The Goldilocks Zone of Game-Based Learning
Watch anyone engrossed in a video or online game, and their intrinsic motivation to persevere is evident. What you can't see is the neurochemical fueling their resilience: dopamine. Making predictions and getting feedback that a choice was correct (and a challenge achieved) are two of the most powerful activators of dopamine release. And it's the pleasure associated with heightened levels of dopamine that leads players to be so intensely engaged that they lose track of time and awareness of distractions—even tweets and texts from friends.
Classrooms can create these same conditions by providing opportunities for individualized, achievable challenge and frequent feedback that challenges are achieved. To clarify: By proposing adapting elements of the video game model to your classroom, I am not advocating for students to spend more time playing video games, that video games are substitutes for teachers, or that the video game model of instruction can replace all types of teaching. I am saying that building a progression of practice with feedback that enables mastery can unleash the motivating dopamine-reward response that enables gamers to sustain effort even in the face of mild frustration.
Video games that gamers stay with are designed to reduce the frustration of failure by offering continuous and immediate opportunities to try again and succeed. These games prevent the boredom of unnecessary drill—players can have as much, or as little, practice as needed to progress to the next level as soon as mastery of the requisite skill is demonstrated. This means that players are always playing at their level of individualized, achievable challenge (I go into more detail on achievable challenge in chapters 2 and 3 of my book Learning to Love Math).
Achievable challenges are those that are perceived as not yet attained, but within reach. Goldilocks would say that the challenge is not too hard, not too easy, but just right; Vygotsky would say it's in a student's zone of proximal development. As students play, practice and feedback builds mastery in a stepwise manner that learners recognize as being within their range of potential.
As student learning tasks are differentiated for mastery with frequent formative assessment and feedback, they sustain engagement through the dopamine-reward state that comes from the awareness of achieving smaller goals on the way to the final goal. To perpetuate their intrinsic satisfaction, students exert more sustained effort to the tasks, even through setbacks, and are more responsive to feedback. When learners have the opportunities to participate and progress in learning challenges at their individualized levels, they recognize corrective feedback as a desirable tool to promote their goal achievement, rather than criticism or evidence of their failure. Learner resilience builds when students see how they will be supported as they gradually build the skills they need to achieve each successive challenge.
Congratulations, You've Reached Level Three
In a compelling video game, players are always aware of the goal they need to achieve at each level en route to the final goal and clear about the tasks that need to be mastered as they sequentially move toward the ultimate achievement. With changes in music, avatars, and background scenery, as well as new task challenges at each level, players moving up in levels have clear feedback that they achieved the challenge of the previous level. As you plan instruction and feedback that capitalizes on the video game model, be sure to include ways learners will see frequent evidence of their mastery progress as they apply effort. You can accomplish this by providing information about the progressive steps that will take place throughout the unit of instruction. Seeing the unit task (e.g., conjugating verbs in the past tense) break down into smaller goals (from previously mastered regular verbs, students gradually progress through predesigned steps of increasing challenges to unfamiliar irregular verbs) reduces the intimidation and hopelessness that some students experience when they hear that the unit focuses on a task they have struggled with, such as adding fractions with different denominators or using all 10 comma rules in their writing.
Planning instruction for individualized, achievable challenge and frequent feedback will help students reach the levels of engagement, focus, and perseverance seen in video game players, because students will develop the awareness that perseverance and effort are tools they possess and can use to achieve success. They will experience how their effort can spur progress, regardless of past experiences—the essence of cultivating a growth mind-set. For specific examples of planning instruction for different grade levels and subjects using the video-game model, check out these free resources:
Judy Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher in Santa Barbara, Calif. She is the author of several ASCD books, including Learning to Love Math and Teaching the Brain to Read.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 20. Copyright 2014 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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