Children in the U.K. could soon be playing a lot more games at school.
A new study has found that turning learning into a computer gambling game — with elements of risk and reward — improves focus and stops people from getting distracted. Professor Paul Howard-Jones, an expert in neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, now believes that the majority of lessons could include such games, reports the Times Educational Supplement.
Howard-Jones tested 24 postgraduate students and found that using a gambling-based reward system revealed that the parts of the brain that indicate distraction and inattention were rarely active. In addition, the participants’ brains released dopamine — the chemical associated with pleasure and reward — in response to a “wheel of fortune” game that offered a chance to double or lose points in a learning task.
These findings potentially have a big implication for education, and Howard-Jones will now extend the study to 10,000 seventh grade (or year 8) children across the U.K.. “It may work better with school pupils than university students,” he said. “The evidence is that the reward-system response for risky decisions peaks at around 13 or 14. That may be why pupils that age are particularly addicted to video games.”
Howard-Jones says that the random nature of the reward system is what keeps people engaged, and he’s already tried the experiment with a small number of school-age children. “To see children actually screaming with pleasure and excitement when tackling educational tasks is great,” he said.
“Games in the classroom are sometimes trivialised,” he added. “They’re just about making learning fun. But I think that trivializes their serious potential. We’re really missing a trick if we don’t take it seriously. Learning can feel like you’re riding a roller coaster.”
Not everyone is in agreement, though. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, told the Times Educational Supplement that an element of risk creates excitement but wondered whether every lesson really needs to be so exciting. “Should every moment of every educational day be thrilling? I’m not sure. Just doing everything for the thrill of the moment is not necessarily desirable.”
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