Skip to main content

Can gambling be useful? You bet

Incorporate risk and uncertain outcomes into lessons and you'll be on to a winner, Darren Evans writes

Incorporate risk and uncertain outcomes into lessons and you'll be on to a winner, Darren Evans writes

From furtive games of pitch-and-toss in the playground to friendly bets on a classmate's sporting prowess, gambling games have always been played by children in school.

But can gambling, or gaming, with its associated and usually negative elements of risk-taking and instant gratification, ever be used in a positive and constructive way to motivate learning in the classroom?

It is a question that has prompted groundbreaking research by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Bristol, who set out to investigate the links between games, brains and learning.

"We wanted to find out why games educated us," says Paul Howard-Jones, who led the research. "It has a lot to do with the attraction of uncertain reward."

The key is a chemical called dopamine, which is associated with the brain's reward system and creates feelings of enjoyment. It can motivate a person to perform certain activities, plays an important role in behaviour and is usually associated with rewarding experiences, such as eating or having sex.

"Research on the brains of monkeys shows that there is an increased level of dopamine transmission in the mid brain when a reward is likely, and that is enhanced by the uncertainty of the reward," Howard-Jones says. "Uncertain reward is present in everyday life in so many circumstances - going for an interview, for example. It's a very important part of what keeps us motivated in life.

"School is the only place where you have an artificially maintained reward relationship. The traditional approach to motivation in the classroom is that if you have the correct answer you should be given a reward. There's a sense of social justice about that. Neuroscience says something different; that to get people motivated you should offer them the chance of getting a reward."

The research has resulted in the creation of Zondle Team Play, a unique piece of software that allows teachers to use a different approach to teaching by turning any lesson into a game.

Pupils are split into teams to answer multiple-choice questions. The teacher sets the topic and allocates the number of points available for each question. She goes through the possible answers in order and asks each team to choose one. The teams are then given the choice to gamble, or "game", their score by opting to double or zero it on a "wheel of chance".

Raising the stakes

Once the correct answer is revealed, the teams who got it right but did not "game" are allocated points, while those who answered correctly but chose to "game" wait for their turn on the wheel. If it stops spinning on a blue strip they are allocated double points. If it stops on a white one they get no points.

According to researchers, the pupils' emotional response to a lesson was more positive and engaged when the gaming element was introduced.

"It's important to have the emotional ups and downs in the classroom because we know it can provoke memory formation," Howard-Jones explains. "Putting an element of uncertainty into the academic tests allows children to experience more of those emotional highs and lows. In a game context the chance of success is 50-50 and that's when you get the best dopamine response.

"Those are the moments children are going to remember. All eyes are on the board. There's a tense silence. You have their attention and you can explain why the other answers are incorrect."

At the point before the wheel of chance is spun, the rising anticipation helps to create a "teachable moment" where the teacher can provide feedback and explanation and the learning can be embedded.

Howard-Jones believes the research has huge potential but acknowledges that it is still early days. Although the researchers have yet to carry out large-scale randomised controlled trials of the methodology to scientifically gauge its effectiveness, they have already had plenty of positive feedback from schools.

Dawn Hallybone, ICT coordinator at Oakdale Junior School in South Woodford, London, has been using Team Play in history, maths and science with pupils from Years 5 and 6 since last summer. She finds the game useful to introduce new topics or for revision purposes, and says the response from pupils is "amazing".

"We use a lot of game-based learning in school but the reaction from pupils to Team Play is really interesting," she says. "They feel as if they are on a television show and take it really seriously. You see them start to devise strategies; at first everyone wants to double their score all the time but eventually they only choose to double if they are certain the answer is correct.

"They start talking to each other about the topic and you find them arguing the case for their answers. They are keen to learn more, and as a teacher it's important to recognise the point at which they are most engaged and to capitalise on that to embed the learning."

Howard-Jones says that when one Year 9 science class in England used the technique over a series of lessons, the majority of pupils said they would prefer to learn that way all the time.

"We have found it often leads to more motivational discourse," he says. "You hear a lot of sporting talk from pupils who would never normally speak like that. For example, if they are doing badly they blame it on bad luck, but if they are doing well it is because of their skill.

"Less able children often win and the most able children do not always win. But it doesn't seem to put off the most able.

"One of the first questions we had was whether introducing chance into the learning environment would reduce fairness. We tested this with a group of Year 9 science pupils using a vicious game in which rolling a dice in the wrong way could take away all the points they had accumulated over the past 20 minutes. We thought they would be in uproar but they thought it was fantastic."

Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, who has spent 26 years researching gambling, says that utilising the fun and competitive element of gambling can be motivational in the classroom.

"You are using the word gamble without any financial meaning whatsoever and there's no evidence that would have a harmful effect," he says. "Plus it's being done in the safe environment of the classroom. Gambling can be a fun and exciting activity and I can see nothing wrong in using its mechanisms in a safe environment to motivate children's learning in this way."

Howard-Jones and his researchers insist that no money changes hands in the gambling games in the classroom. It is the notion of risk and chance that boosts the educational effect, they say.

Up for debate

An unexpected supporter of the approach is Adrian Scarfe, head of clinical training at GamCare, a charity that wants more information and education about gambling in the classroom.

Indeed, GamCare made national newspaper headlines in 2011 for its campaign to educate children about gambling alongside such topics as sex, drugs and alcohol abuse in personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons.

It has called on the Department for Education to teach pupils about risk, probability and responsible gambling - as well as the dangers of gambling addiction. But it has so far gone unheeded.

Scarfe believes that introducing gambling through the Team Play lesson structure could be useful in linking to a discussion later on the wider issue of gambling and its risks.

"This seems to be a very good and creative teaching technique that would aid the learning process," he says. "And teachers could expand on it to approach the subject of gambling and the processes involved in more detail."

There is currently no requirement for schools to educate pupils about gambling, either in the PSHE curriculum or in other topics, and Scarfe says that few schools take it upon themselves to do so. The only subject in which gambling forms part of the curriculum is the addiction module of the A-level psychology course, he says.

Yet he believes it is critical that teachers should understand gambling, and be able to talk about responsible and irresponsible forms of it. "Within the topic of gambling is a whole range of positive lessons for pupils - how to manage risk and reward, how to manage resources and understand personal finance, calculating probability, even its impact on health and social life," Scarfe says.

The most likely educators to use games or gambling in the classroom have so far been maths teachers, who see it as a creative way to teach about probability, odds and money.

But Scarfe worries that, without better education, GamCare will encounter more and more problem gamblers under the age of 18. According to a 1999 study into pathological gambling and related problems among adolescents, only 5 per cent of parents would consider discussing the risks of gambling with their children.

"Gambling has become normalised in our society and culture since the National Lottery became part of our lives in the mid-1990s," Scarfe says.

"There has been an increase in advertising and celebrity promotion of gambling, and advances in technology to make gambling more accessible," he says. "Add to that a poor understanding of risk and what gambling is about and it is becoming more attractive to young people.

"We know young people take risks and play gambling games between themselves, and although the gambling industry is regulated very strongly in this country we know underage gambling happens, like underage drinking in pubs.

"Gambling is a legal activity that is well run in this country, and we would like to see it taught as part of the PSHE curriculum in schools."

Researcher Mark Griffiths agrees. He has helped to produce a number of free resources for schools on gambling, including exercises looking at perceptions of the activity and its potential risks. But these also flag up the fact that it can be sensibly enjoyed by adults.

"This is something that does need to be taught more formally in schools, because we know prevention is better than cure," he says. "Gambling is a consumptive behaviour that for a small minority can be addictive and potentially harmful. By not talking about it openly you can get misinformation and that can lead to longer-term problems.

"Gambling can't be seen in isolation - children who gamble are likely to be involved in other potentially risky behaviour, too. PSHE lessons are the best place to talk about these issues."

A game of chance

Despite the elements of chance and risk inherent in the Team Play game, Howard-Jones refutes suggestions that the lessons could lead to further gambling by pupils.

"I'm really not keen on gambling, I'm very anti," he says. "I prefer to call what we are doing gaming not gambling.

"When I present these ideas to teachers for the first time I'm often asked if this will turn children into pathological gamblers because we are spinning a wheel of chance all the time.

"But there is no research linking teaching through gaming to producing gambling behaviour. The reason why we have pursued this particular avenue is because we have found it to be helpful in understanding the attraction of video games, which usually do not involve any monetary gain."

And he says there is no more dopamine produced in the brain by increasing the amount of the reward offered for success.

"We are not offering any material rewards of any particular value," he explains. "This is not about purely chance, but chance and how it relates to learning."


Although gambling is not on the curriculum at state schools, some independent schools do educate their pupils about the subject.

Peter Hatch, head of personal, social and health education (PSHE) at King's College School in Wimbledon, southwest London, says that he wants to prepare his pupils as fully as possible for life after school.

"Our PSHE lessons cover a wide range of topics including gambling," Hatch says, adding that it is "an ever-present issue".

Pupils watch documentaries about gambling, including broadcaster Louis Theroux's exploration of Las Vegas, and then discuss the topic.

In the upper fifth, pupils also look at how the legal side of gambling has changed over the years. Recently, too, Adrian Scarfe from the charity GamCare delivered a talk on responsible gambling.

"Gambling is always a temptation and we want our pupils to be aware of the risks involved and for them to have the skills to make informed decisions," Hatch says.

"We want to ensure they are aware of the issues before they are faced with the choice of whether to do it or not."



The science behind Zondle Team Play:


Neuroeducational resources for educators:



At any one time about


12- to 15-year-olds are problem gamblers - a prevalence rate of 2 per cent, which is more than twice the rate for adults*

In 2011-12

2% of all callers to GamCare were under the age of 18 and

31% were aged 19 to 25. In addition, 35 under-18s were referred to GamCare counselling, compared with none the previous year+

34% of under-18s who contacted the charity had placed bets,

28% used roulette machines and

17% used fruitslot machines (each caller could give more than one type of betting activity)+

42% of under-18s said they had used a betting shop,

33% had gambled on the internet and

9% said they had gambled in a casino+

Sources: *Ipsos MORI +GamCare.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you