Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.
Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience
Consider the Best Computer Game Model: In the most compelling computer games, think about what the player gets after working through the challenges of each successive level. When they succeed at mastering the skills of the new level, they don’t get prizes, money, hugs, or teacher approval. They get recognition of their incremental progress by being promoted to the next level of play – which is actually MORE CHALLENGING WORK! These game attributes, applied to teaching, can have the same motivating and successful effects on learners.
What makes computer games so captivating? The successful computer games promote goal orientation, perseverance (even after failure), scaffolding when needed, clear tasks, opportunities to practice, and recognize one’s own incremental goal progress. The best games are broken up into levels. Reaching the next levels provide opportunities for players to recognize their progress on their way to the final game goal.
Achievable Challenge. The most popular computer games provide increasingly challenging levels as players become more and more skillful. As skill improves, the next challenge is at again at an appropriate level of achievable challenge that the player can reach with practice, effort, and perseverance. This game model correlates to using achievable challenge, motivating goals, & feedback about incremental progress in the classroom, with the scaffolding provided for support, as students are motivated to strategically build mastery.
Collaboration of Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Education
The confidence base is established when students know that they will have access to the tools and support they need to reach the high expectations differentiated for them. These are the classrooms where the bar does not need to be lowered or challenge eliminated in the name of access. Achievable challenge set students on appropriately challenging paths increases maximum brain engagement. The extra planning time is rewarded by increased student engagement such that less time needed for behavior management and students have increased motivation to participate in class and on homework.
The additional brain-memory bonus, as I’ve written about previously, is the dopamine-reward cycle activation where students’ pleasure-reward response responds to more frequent opportunities to recognize their own incremental goal progress. In addition of this perseverance promoting effect of dopamine released by intrinsic motivation, students develop the concept that effort does bring goal progress, and regardless of past experiences, they can succeed with effort and opportunities to get the support and tools they need to promote their success.
Achievable challenge set students on appropriately challenging paths increases maximum brain engagement. The extra planning time is rewarded by increased student engagement such that less time needed for behavior management and students have increased motivation to participate in class and on homework. The additional brain-memory bonus, as I’ve written about previously, is the dopamine-reward cycle activation where students’ pleasure-reward response responds to more frequent opportunities to recognize their own incremental goal progress. In addition of this perseverance promoting effect of dopamine released by intrinsic motivation, students develop the concept that effort does bring goal progress, and regardless of past experiences, they can succeed with effort and opportunities to get the support and tools they need to promote their success.
Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Education: UbD for Neuro-logical Planning and Instruction
When I recognized the compatibility of the computer game model with the correlations of my area of specialization as a neurologist, and later during my ten years of teaching elementary and middle school, I sought models though which the computer game model could be best applied to curriculum and assessment planning as well as to classroom instruction. I found was the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their Understanding by Design (UbD) and Planning by Design books provides a wealth of information for planning, assessment, and instruction. My references to UbD in this article are to aspects particularly relevant to the computer game model including: a curriculum and assessment model that includes backward planning starting with goals as “big ideas” and “essential questions”, advance planning of formative and summative assessments with ongoing student feedback and teacher feedback, authentic performance tasks as assessments that teach and motivate, and transfer of learning to new domains.
Achievable Challenge and Student Awareness of Incremental Progress: Successful curriculum, assessment, and goal planning are required for the video game model (dopamine-reward system) to work its magic. The UbD model sets up information delivery and output goals that are ideal for the patterning, prediction, and pleasure systems that drive and guide the brain.
Research has given us increasing understanding of what sensory input has the greatest likelihood of passing through the brain’s attention and emotional filters to reach the highest emotional and intellectual control centers in the prefrontal cortex. We know more and more about what it takes to retain that new input, first in working memory then in long-term and extended conceptual memory.
We have the guidance of further research supporting the “packaging” and “output goals” that promote the brain’s most efficient internal drives and organization. The UbD system is ideal for the brain’s structure and function by incorporating core concepts into meaningful and authentic contexts and including opportunities to “play the game while building the skills” as students apply learning throughout the acquisition process.
The likelihood of information being maintained in long-term memory increases when students’ brains are prepared in advance to “catch” the new input. This requires that we confirm that students’ foundational knowledge is accurate and then use strategies to activate the memory circuits of prior knowledge to which new input can physically link to construct working memory. Without this preactivation, there is nothing to which new input can link and new learning, failing to consolidate with an existing circuit, is not retained.
To prepare students for the dopamine-reward system that sustains motivation and memory through incremental goal progress, we need to preassess and correct faulty foundational knowledge, activate prior knowledge, and sustain the incremental progress awareness through ongoing formative assessments and feedback. This involves differentiation and individualization with scaffolding to customize the learning process for students’ levels of achievable challenge. Then, with opportunities to apply and transfer learning through enjoyable and personally relevant activities, students reach that video game model state in which they want to learn what they have to learn.
For the two years, I have had the privilege of collaborating with Jay McTighe. One area of our focus is curriculum planning and instructional strategies that incorporate the computer game model’s dopamine-reward system, fueled by the intrinsic motivation of incremental progress recognition. Our work together has further convinced me that achievable challenges are promoted when student interest is developed and teachers communicate high expectations while insuring that students have the support and scaffolding needed to achieve the challenges.
The component of incremental progress requires clearly structured and motivating goals that are made evident to the students from the beginning. Transparent expectations are also part of UbD planning, as students know the goals and assessments in advance. The recognition of incremental progress is supported by the authentic assessments and frequent feedback about goal progress throughout the unit (instead of their receiving feedback only by summative test scores of rote memory at the end of units). The clarity and student-desirability of unit goals is what the brain needs to best use its pattern-seeking design to construct and expand memory stored in relational networks.
With input now having a “big idea” or “essential question” on which to link, patterning activities can strengthen links and extend relational memory networks. These activities need to continue to appeal to the brain’s prediction, pattern, and pleasure seeking. As in the video game process where players use trial and error, inductive reasoning, instructive feedback from the game, and even read the manual to reach their goals, students will do the same when they value the mental manipulations (such as the authentic performance tasks in UbD) and available resources as tools to reach their desired goals. The same is true with corrective feedback and direct instruction during a unit if students’ brains directly link this input with the goals they seek.
The key is to develop desirable goals, provide individual students the paths to progress that suit their levels of achievable challenge, then to provide them with frequent opportunities to recognize their individual incremental goal progress. These students not only benefit from the intrinsic satisfaction of the dopamine-reward response to their incremental progress (as the video game player does to getting to the next level), but they also change their brains.
Neuroplasticity is the process through which the brain sustains learning in long-term memory and links related memory circuits together as conceptual knowledge. Each time a memory circuit is activated, electricity that flows through it fuels neuroplastic construction (dendrites, synapses, myelination of axons). This circuit activation is most effective when students are motivated by personally relevant performance tasks and opportunities for authentic transfer activities throughout the learning process.
It has long been the goal of education to provide students with skills and knowledge to serve them beyond the classroom and the habits of mind that sustain lifelong learning. Now this goal is even more critical as much of the information and technology that will be available to today’s students when they graduate is not even here now. Fortunately, we have the correlations from neuroscience and cognitive science to guide us in designing learning experiences to promote the construction of long-term, conceptual memory and the circuits of executive functions that will serve our students beyond graduation.
From clear goals as the “packaging” for successful brain intake, to authentic performance tasks for mental manipulation, and transfer opportunities to apply learning in ways beyond those in which it was acquired and practiced, we have tools to promote learning consistent with the brain’s most powerful neural processing. Despite the unrealistic demands of an over-packed curriculum, the convergence of neuroscience and cognitive science, advances in curriculum planning, assessment quality, and instructional strategies can engage the brain as powerfully as the best video game. We have the tools to plan instruction with the packaging of information input and clarity of goal-directed output that aligns with and IGNITE our students’ brains’ most successful processing now and in the future.
Copyright © 2011 by Judy Willis
Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher in Santa Barbara, California, attended UCLA School of Medicine, where she remained as a resident and ultimately became chief resident in neurology. She practiced neurology for 15 years, and then received a credential and master's degree in education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has taught in elementary, middle, and graduate schools; and provides professional development presentations and workshops nationally and internationally about learning and the brain. Her website is www.RADTeach.com