Have your cake and see it, smell it. then eat it

6th February 2015 at 00:00
Suspense boosts pupils' sense of achievement, neuroscientist says

Imagine you are blindfolded and told that someone is going to feed you delicious food.

Now imagine you are given a menu. You read a description of a chocolate dessert, with a crisp outer shell and a gooey fondant centre. You order the dessert and watch the waiter carry it over to you. You cut into it and feel the crust crack as the molten chocolate spills out on to your plate.

Which of these two experiences is more enjoyable?

A build-up of anticipation heightens and intensifies the pleasure of reward, according to Daniel Levitin, an award-winning neuroscientist and author. And, Professor Levitin argues, teachers can use this neurological knowledge to ensure that their pupils derive maximum pleasure from the acquisition of knowledge.

Success and achievement lead to the hormone dopamine being released in the brain, Professor Levitin tells TES. And dopamine creates a pleasurable feeling: laboratory animals which are given a hit of dopamine when they press a lever quickly learn to press it repeatedly.

But, Professor Levitin says, the neurochemistry of reward has two components. The first is anticipatory: "When the chocolate cake is sitting on your plate, there's a certain amount of pleasure you get from that. You imagine what it will taste like. You're making associations in your memory with the way you've felt when you've had other cakes."

The second component is consummatory. "That's the actual consuming, served by different chemical processes," Professor Levitin says. "When you actually get the cake, it's more intense, because of the suspense.

"In a sense, it's the punchline to a joke, the final chord to a symphony, the learning moment of `Aha! I see how that works now'."

Teachers, he says, can use this knowledge in the classroom. "So, what the good teacher does is builds up a bit of suspense. Storytelling. Laying out the problem and seeing if students can come up with the solution. That gives them a bit of anticipatory pleasure as they get nearer and nearer to the solution.

"I think the class has to be problem-solving. Whether in the humanities or science, you're investigating a problem. And maybe you'll discover that a tool you had in your tool belt all along applies here. That's the consummatory pleasure: `Of course. Aha! I've learned something'."

Professor Levitin's new book, The Organized Mind, argues that education is no longer about amassing information. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it is much more important that pupils learn to assess and evaluate the information they are able to access.

Now professor of psychology, behavioural neuroscience and music at McGill University in Canada, Professor Levitin took a journalism course while at high school. It taught him "ways of approaching information-gathering; sorting through information for what's important; storytelling; writing", he says. "All this turned out far more useful than I imagined."

Such critical thinking skills, he argues, will equip children for a society that may well develop in entirely new - and as yet unimaginable - directions. "I don't know what kind of jobs there will be in 20, 30 years' time," he says. "Certainly in 40 years' time. So we don't want to train people for specific jobs.

"I'm proposing that we start teaching children investigative journalism skills. That they question their sources. That they're sceptical. That they want to see the evidence. We want to train them to think critically and independently. How to evaluate information.

"It's about giving them skills for any job - for life. For managing your own budget. For being able to deal with medical decisions that may be difficult. For evaluating decisions."

His book, which was published in Britain last week, argues that children should be taught to solve the kinds of problems currently associated with management consultancy or Google job interviews: to estimate how many piano tuners there are in Britain, for example, or how many ping pong balls would fit into a jumbo jet.

The aim of such questions is not for the interviewee to deliver the correct answer but to demonstrate a clear and logical thinking process.

"It's not that we're preparing them for Google job interviews," Professor Levitin says. "And it's not because there's any job where you need to work out how to stuff ping pong balls into planes - unless, perhaps, you work for FedEx.

"But we want to train children to define a problem within reasonable parameters, and to find an answer that's reasonable. We associate it with management consultancy and Google because those organisations have worked out the skills we need. They want disciplined and creative thinkers. In fact, all sectors want those - they just haven't yet adopted these screening techniques."

The role of the teacher, therefore, is no longer to deliver information. "We can read faster than the teacher can talk," Professor Levitin says. "So reading is a very efficient way of learning. The problem is motivating students to learn.

"Good teachers generate enthusiasm and excitement for the thrill of learning. And they motivate students to look into something on their own, after school, for their homework. They're generating motivation."

And so he returns to the idea of anticipatory and consummatory pleasures. By providing the anticipatory build-up of knowledge just out of reach, the teacher can intensify the dopamine hit of the eventual reveal.

"Facilitate the discovery for students," he says. "Ask, `Do you agree? Why do you agree? What evidence do you have that this person is right? How can you construct an argument about whether she was correct or incorrect?' That, I think, is the future of education."

The Organized Mind: thinking straight in the age of information overload by Daniel Levitin is published by Viking

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