George Cole sits in on a Zondle games workshop with Dr Paul Howard-Jones (Q&A below)

Paul Howard-JonesDr Paul Howard-Jones: games 'encode our knowledge'Research into the mind and brain has given us a greater insight into how games can boost learning in the classroom. The research also throws into question the traditional reward system used by countless teachers around the world: whenever a child gives a correct answer to a question, they always receive a reward, such as points or praise.

And this form of reward system may actually decrease, rather than increase, pupil motivation, the research suggests. These were just some of the points in a presentation on teaching and learning through whole-class gaming by Dr Paul Howard-Jones who is working with games platform provider Zondle to produce a free gaming app for teachers to put the research findings into practice.

Dr Paul Howard-Jones is co-ordinator of the Centre for Mind and Brain in Educational and Social Contexts (M-BESC) at the University of Bristol. “When gamers are viewing game images, their brain activity is similar to that seen with drug addicts and gamblers viewing images associated with their addiction,” he explains. Playing video games produces a rapid scheduling of rewards, which stimulate the brain to release dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure.

'These connections encode our knowledge, which is the basis of learning'

“The amount of mid-brain dopamine released when people play video games has been found to be similar to that released by Ritalin [a drug used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, ADHD] and some amphetamines,” he adds. Dopamine not only provides pleasure, but it focuses our visual attention, stimulates a part of the brain that improves memory capacity, and accelerates the rate at which neurons (brain cells) make connections with each other. These connections encode our knowledge, which is the basis of learning.

“There’s no clear relationship between learning and reward,” says Paul Howard-Jones, “if you give a child five points today for good work, and you give them ten points tomorrow, it doesn’t double the likelihood of them remembering. But there is a clear relationship between the brain’s response to reward and learning.”

Research into the effects of reward on brain activity produced one very surprising result. If someone is 100 per cent certain of getting a reward, there’s a small spike in dopamine as they anticipate the reward. But when the reward arrives, no further dopamine is released. But if there’s a degree of uncertainty; an element of chance, the anticipation creates a small spike in dopamine, and when the reward arrives, it results in a second and bigger boost of dopamine. The highest dopamine levels are produced when there’s a 50/50 chance of reward. “We also get the reward effect whenever we see our opponents fail,” adds Paul Howard-Jones.

“We’ve become used to the idea that motivation is built on the reward consistency – if the child gets the right answer, they should get a point, and that ‘s the most motivating approach, but is this correct?” His research team has conducted a series of educational games in classrooms and found that students prefer reward systems where there is an element of chance, such as gambling on whether to double or lose all your points on the flip of a coin.

“But is all this sugar-coating on the bitter pill of learning?” asks Paul Howard-Jones. “Or does it transform the learning experience and make learning more exciting?”  Research with adults, who were also tested on their response to reward uncertainty, suggests that it does.

Zondle used the research for its free app 'Zondle Team Play'

Zondle has used the research to create a free app, Zondle Team Play, which combines educational content with games. The app can be downloaded on to an internet-connected device for game play. In his presentation, Paul Howard-Jones divided members of the audience into eight teams, who enthusiastically competed against each other – and often preferred to gamble on whether to double or lose their points.

In order for this type of approach to be effective, certain criteria have to be met, he explains, “There needs to be close inter-mingling between the learning and gaming; questions have to be carefully designed and test all the learning levels. You need high risk and high stakes when selecting teams for special challenges, because everyone else is motivated by them failing; but you need to compensate for this by offering high rewards if they get it right; and when you present the questions, scaffolding whenever you reveal the answer, because that’s when the pupil’s attention is at its peak.”

Howard-Jones says, “Learning through games is no substitute for other types of learning. It’s important that children also learn through books, the internet and from each other – although these forms of learning can also take place in this sort of environment. Games-based learning is another tool in the school teacher’s toolbox.”

Wayne Holmes, director of education at Zondle, adds that teachers are crucial to the success of games-based learning, “It only really comes to life when a teacher takes advantage of those teachable moments. It makes the whole system sing and work very effectively. Gaming doesn’t replace the role of the good teacher.”

Teacher Q&A session with Paul Howard-Jones and Zondle

During the presentation, Dr Paul Howard-Jones answered a number of questions related to his research and the use of Zondle Team Play in the classroom

In view of the research results on the effects of reward uncertainty, should schools now abandon 100 per cent reward consistency and opt for 50 percent?
There are some contexts where 50 per cent is clearly not applicable, for example, summative assessment in GCSE. The GCSE grade should be 100 per cent related to the child’s ability. But when it comes to the classroom experience, and formative assessment – what people understand and they don’t understand – then it’s definitely the way to go.

You mentioned how we get a reward from seeing others fail. Some teachers might be uncomfortable with that.
It does challenge teachers, because it’s a different way of approaching reward. We might think that’s a bit harsh, but when you look at the type of conversation that arises from it, you find that children celebrate their failure. They run off and tell their friends, "You won’t believe what’s just happened – we’ve lost all our points!" That would never happen in a maths test, because it’s an academic environment, as opposed to a gaming environment, which is fun.

Does the reward effect wear off after playing games for a long period?
There’s not enough evidence to be conclusive about this, but we have used games to teach a topic that ran over several lessons. Most children said they preferred the games. We suspect that the effect doesn’t wear off when you consider how much time people can spend playing games at home.

Is there a difference between how adults and children react to the reward response?
It peaks at about 13-14, which probably explains why teenagers are often big risk takers.

Is there a gender difference when it comes to the reward effect?
Both boys and girls respond to reward, but it has a bigger effect on boys. We think this is because boys’ brains take longer to mature.

Is there any difference in response between children with ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) who are medicated with Ritalin and those who are not?
One theory about ADHD is that it’s related to an under-functioning of the child’s reward system, which affects engagement. Ritalin stimulates the reward response and improves engagement. It could be that games could be used a non-medicated alternative to drugs, but this is purely speculative.

Isn’t there a danger of turning children into pathological gamblers?
No we’re not. We encounter reward uncertainty all the time in everyday life, for example, when we go for a job interview. Schools are an unusual example, where we remove uncertainty, often for socially just reasons, because we want to improve motivation, although the evidence is that, it drives down motivation, particularly for boys. Research into video gaming and pathological gambling shows there is a correlation, but it’s solely the result of gender – boys tend to like both. When you look at studies where video games and gambling are not occurring in the same context, there is no significant relationship. If there was a connection, you’d expect playing games like Monopoly or snakes and ladders to produce gambling behaviour, because all games have some form of reward uncertainty. As long as money isn’t involved, I think we’re okay.

Do pupils need an internet-connected device to use Zondle Team Play?
No. A teacher can run it with a whole class using just a PC, internet connection and data projector.

Who makes the content for Zondle Team Play and can it be re-used by others?
Much of the content is created by teachers and it can be re-used to suit your particular needs.

How much content is there?
More than 12,000 topics.

Is Zondle only suitable for multiple-choice type questions?
No. You could, for example, have a discussion about an issue and then get teams to vote on the answer. Some teachers use it for extended essay work, with pupils writing notes to prepare their answers. It’s very flexible.

What’s the maximum number of teams that can compete at any one time?

Is Zondle Team Play available in other languages?
It’s been translated, to varying degrees, into nine languages including, French, Spanish, Welsh, Arabic and Hebrew.

Where can I learn more about Zondle Team Play?
By going to where you’ll find more information about what it is and how to use it. Much of the information is downloadable.

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More information

Dr Paul Howard-Jones and Kate Fenton have written a teacher’s handbook on using games for learning, Brains, Minds and Teaching with Immersive Games (£9.99)   

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