Making learning addictive

We are increasingly addicted to our computers and phones. This is not an accident. The companies devising those online offerings that grab and hold our attention know precisely what they are doing. It was at a conference back in about 2008 that I first heard people talking about this, so the understanding of how to get people addicted to your website isn’t new. This was all brought back to my attention this week by New Scientist who reviewed a book by Adam Alter “Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching”.

While we may decry the amount of time young people (and many older) spend glued to their phones, the article did make the point that we can also use technology to motivate good behaviours. In fact it doesn’t need tech at all, though tech can be very powerful in multiplying the impact of what you do to addict people to good behaviours.

What has made me put words into a blog is that the techniques being used to addict us to online systems are identical to the approaches being used by the schools that have gained the Naace Third Millennium Learning Award, which are a good sample of digitally-evolved schools. They have shown us in their videos what they do to increase engagement in learning by their pupils. These schools are essentially addicting young people to learning. I cannot see this as anything other than a good thing to do. The choice of where these young people will direct their attention to fulfil this addiction is entirely theirs. Their teachers and parents will suggest and guide so that they hopefully direct their learning attention to good things, and most young people want to learn the positive things life offers. Addiction to learning is in a completely different category to addiction to things that bring harm or merely absorb time.

Having pupils in your school addicted to learning also creates major spin-off benefits for the school staff and even the school budget. Pupils excited about learning, with an appetite for learning, who practise learning and reinforce the learning of others is what we all want. Teaching becomes a joy, achievement rockets and everyone in the school has the satisfaction of knowing their pupils are well equipped for the learning challenges they will continually face beyond school.

So what are these techniques to addict people. They are things that stimulate our brains to release dopamine, giving intense feelings of pleasure and making us want more. They are:
– Feedback
– Goals, which should be just beyond reach.
– Progress, through a sense of incremental mastery.
– Escalation, via progressively more difficult tasks.
– Cliffhangers, to produce tension that demands resolution.
– Strong social connections.

Anyone familiar with computer games knows how they use these techniques. But you will surely recognise that social networks are also using them to grab our attention.

These are also the defining characteristics of schools that are providing an education that surpasses good traditional learning:

1) Really good feedback, from the teacher, from lots of audiences through in-school celebration of work and collaborative activities, through parental and family engagement, and through involvement of the community.

2) Aspirational targets agreed by pupils, made possible because the schools have installed a growth mindset and made failure the first step to success.

3) A very strong focus on progress, which makes it easier to set agreed aspirational targets as all pupils can see clearly their progress, even if it is from a low base. Mastery is celebrated and rewarded through peer tutoring and many pupils taking leadership roles in the school (one third of the pupils have leadership roles in one school we have looked at).

4) Escalation of the difficulty of the challenges teachers set pupils as soon as they successfully master the original challenge. With ‘stretch and challenge’ resources available for pupils to independently move themselves on to.

5) Cliffhangers introduced by teachers in numerous ways such as timed tasks, deadlines to present work to other pupils, collaborative activities in which pupils challenge each other, performances, competitions and real-life tasks where pupils interact with others outside the school.

6) Strong social connections weaving their way through all of the above, through class discussions, collaboration, peer tutoring, class experts, pupil leaders, numerous audiences in-school and online, and high visibility of pupils’ output to others as a normal part of the work they do in school.

All this is of course possible without use of technology, but immensely more powerful when the school makes the online systems available to underpin all these. Visibility of work, audiences, collaboration and feedback, clarity of progress, availability of escalating challenges, and setting of high expectations can all be immeasurably stronger with effective use of technology. Not to mention the tools and resources for the work challenges that technology brings.

It is time that more schools realised that it is not enough to bemoan that children are becoming addicted to their phones. It is time to make what happens in school and in classes more addictive than the pleasures they get through their phones. And to use the fact that children have smartphones to complement, reinforce and make more addictive what happens in class, making children desire to continue feeding this learning addiction out of class.

This shouldn’t be hard given that schools have trained adults on site and the face-to-face social environment in which teachers can build addiction to learning, as well as what comes to children through their screens – provided of course that the school has not banned the pupils from bringing their mobile devices into school. The school’s online presence, together with real humans for several hours a day, can be much compelling than a cleverly designed algorithm.