This is Your Brain on Fun: The Science Behind Learning, Motivation and Having a Great Time
As a teacher, you can sometimes feel like your students aren’t listening to a word you’re saying. Even though you’ve created the perfect lesson plan, the information goes in one ear and right out the other. What gives?
Well, there’s probably more than one reason why your students aren’t hanging on to your every word. After all, distractions abound. But when it comes down to it, there’s one thing that can make or break your students’ memory: a little thing called dopamine.
What is dopamine?
To scientists, dopamine is a neurotransmitter—a chemical messenger that helps the transmission of signals in the brain. It affects brain processes that control movement, emotions and the ability to experience pleasure and pain.
But to teachers, dopamine is the brain’s reward mechanism. It’s released in a student’s brain when they experience something they enjoy, like going on an adventure with friends or discovering a tasty treat in their lunchbox. Even learning something new triggers these feelings of euphoria, but only if it’s something really engaging and awesome.
Why should we care about dopamine?
Because our brains are wired to find learning fun! Think about it: Every time we’re interested and engaged in a subject, our brains get a shot of dopamine. The feelings of pleasure that follow make us want to keep learning, exploring and pushing ourselves to find out more.
In other words, dopamine rewards behaviours—like learning—that promote the survival of our species.
But what’s more, dopamine not only motivates us to learn, but it also helps us retain that new information. Dr Martha Burns, a neuroscientist and leading expert on how children learn, calls dopamine the “save button.” When dopamine is present during an event or experience, we remember it. But when it’s absent, nothing seems to stick. The more interested we are in an activity, the more dopamine is released and the better we remember it.
That’s great, but how can we increase our students’ dopamine levels?
Information is constantly streaming in and out of our brains. That we know. So the trick here is to find a way to filter out all of the familiar sights, sounds and smells and get the students to focus on what really matters: the lesson at hand.
To do that, you need to present information in an exciting and novel way. If there’s a change in the way you teach (ie students are not passively sitting in their desks and listening to you), then that information will take precedence over whatever else is happening around them. The students’ brains will make that information top priority over all other sensory input. Students will feel more enthusiastic and engaged, and their dopamine levels will skyrocket.
Tip: If you really want to make your lesson stand out, you could always try using kites as a teaching tool! They’re a unique way to get students excited about a variety of subjects. Science, math, history, social studies, language arts…the topics are virtually endless (and endless fun!).
As well, it also helps to make the content rewarding. Positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to increase dopamine levels and ensure retention of information. And, it helps keep motivation and attention levels high.
Tip: What’s more rewarding than seeing your own colourful creation take to the sky? Students have complete freedom to decorate their kite however they please. And when they’re done, they can immediately see the results of their hard work (and the effects of their actions!). It’s a fun and rewarding way to make learning real.
Students who have these satisfying learning experiences develop the confidence, curiosity and perseverance necessary to excel in school and beyond. They become learners for life!
Have any fun learning experiences (as a teacher or student) to share?
Image courtesy of Woodleywonderworks.