‘Liking’ vs ‘wanting’. A neuroscientific view on classroom motivation

One way in which educational neuroscience research can have an immediate and direct effect on modern education is through evaluating whether the theories and techniques which are currently used in schools are plausible, given the neuroscientific and cognitive evidence. This rather humble, constraining role is in contrast to the popular image of neuroscience as a shiny new tool with which to revolutionise classroom instruction (and as a result is far less likely to attract any funding). Still, I see it as a crucial first step in providing practical applications linking the lab and the classroom coherently. As an example, let’s take the case of motivation. Do common ideas about motivation in the classroom coherently reflect what we know about motivation in the brain?

I came across the picture below this week, with a quote attributed to educational consultants Gayle Gregory and Carolyn Chapman.

motivation-and-fishing

Whist I have struggled to find the specific reference given in the picture, Gregory and Chapman are a pretty prolific publishing duo, so it wasn’t difficult to find other similar material. For example, in ‘Differentiating Instruction with Style’, Gregory (2005) writes that motivation to learn was increased when students:

“chose to learn the topic, had fun learning, got a sense of personal satisfaction from the experience, were able to use the learning to enhance their lives and enjoyed working with their instructor.”

Gregory and Chapman’s fishing analogy and the quote above taps into a natural intuition that motivation and enjoyment are intrinsically linked. If we find something enjoyable, then presumably we will want to do it again. The obvious conclusion for educators to draw is that if we want motivated students, we must focus our efforts on making learning as enjoyable as possible for them.

Here, then, is an intuitive and seemingly common-sense psychological theory. It is also one that is hugely prevalent across all levels of education. Indeed, trainee teachers are taught this very concept; teacher training courses will often cover intrinsic motivation, where the satisfaction of performing the action itself provides the motivation to repeat it. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the classic example of this idea, though there have been many other adaptations since (see e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Glasser, 1990, 1998; Ryan & Deci, 2000). All these theories assume a close, even necessary, connection between liking something and wanting to repeat it. But is this assumption supported by what we know about the neuroscience of motivation? I would argue that it is not.

Liking is not the same as wanting

Evidence emerging over the last 20 years of research into the neuroscience of motivation has begun to strongly suggest that merely finding something pleasurable may not actually be enough to generate a motivational state; in fact, liking something and wanting to repeat it may be dissociable. In an excellent review of neuroscientific models of motivation and their relevance to education, Kim (2013) writes:

This means that a state of liking for a specific object or activity cannot be understood as a motivational state and that liking is not a prerequisite for generating motivation. From this perspective, liking refers to an emotional state whereas wanting has more to do with motivation and decision utility (Berridge and Aldridge, 2008). 

A good deal of the careful work unpacking the various different aspects of what makes an experience pleasurable has come from the lab of Kent BerridgeFor example, whilst liking and wanting have previously both been associated with a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), Berridge (2003) found that they are actually processed by distinct, anatomically separate NAcc regions which can operate independently of one another. In addition, liking and wanting may involve different neurotransmitters, as artificially suppressing dopamine release can reduce wanting behaviour towards a stimulus without reducing the degree of liking for it (Berridge and Robinson, 2003). Berridge concluded that dopamine was only important for increasing the ‘incentive salience’  ̶  the degree of wanting  ̶   of a stimulus, and in turn therefore producing a motivational state to repeat it, rather than for regulating the liking of the stimulus itself.

Whilst this distinction between liking and wanting may seem initially counter-intuitive, it is actually one that we are all pretty familiar with in our everyday lives. Many of us will recognise that it is perfectly possible to be highly motivated to perform an action, without finding the action itself intrinsically pleasurable. An obvious example for many people might be our jobs, but even within the realm of activities which we freely choose to do this distinction is still surprisingly common. Take exercise, for example. Many people have strong desire to exercise (exercise has a high ‘incentive salience’) and are therefore motivated to exercise regularly. For a good proportion of these people, however, the actual process of exercise, the in-the-moment sensory experience of it, is not in itself pleasurable. Indeed, it may sometimes be actively unpleasant; the first football game after buying new boots was always an agonising ordeal, but there was no way I was actually going to stop playing. Why, then, do we continue? Because we have some higher goal (or stimulus of very high incentive salience) which motivates us, overriding the temporary experience of pain, tiredness or discomfort.

runner-in-pain-article
Many ‘hobbies’ may not in themselves be pleasurable at the time. Piano practice was far worse than this.

A less wholesome example of the same process is drug abuse. Drug addicts show a stark dissociation between liking and wanting. They may come to hate the drug itself, but the incentive salience is such that they crave it nonetheless (Berridge & Robinson, 1995). Animals too will continue to self-administer a drug long after they appear to find the experience pleasurable (Berridge & Valenstein, 1991), even to the point of complete exhaustion or death (Olds and Milner, 1954).

Explaining the difference: hedonia and eudaimonia

Identifying different components of happiness is by no means a new idea. Aristotle distinguished between hedonia (pure sensory pleasure) and eudaimonia (a life well-lived or ‘human flourishing’), and this ancient division is actually remarkably useful in helping us to interpret modern day neuroscientific findings. Hedonia represents ‘liking’, whilst eudaimonia provides the ‘wanting’ or incentive salience (as well as higher cognitive influences such as goal setting). Whilst in most conceptions of eudaimonia it is assumed to be a positive force, it is important to note the corollary, overly intense ‘wanting’ can lead to unhappiness and addiction (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2009). Whilst the brain systems governing hedonic and eudaimonic experience are complex, and extend beyond simply different areas of the NAcc mentioned above, they are again clearly distinguishable in the brain, involving different regions and neurotransmitters (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2009).

Hedonia and Eudaimonia in education

So what relevance has this neuroscientific distinction between eudaimonia and hedonia for education? I would say quite a lot. If we accept that the incentive salience of an object is not intrinsically linked to our liking of it, then suddenly the rationale behind many teaching strategies is thrown into question. As Kim (2013) concludes:

There is a need for careful reconsideration of the argument in which the school activity should be enjoyable to generate motivation because pleasure and enjoyment may not automatically lead to motivation.

When considering the happiness of students in lessons, we have a natural tendency to think in terms of hedonic experience, prioritising the immediate gratification of an enjoyable activity and assuming that this will create a motivational engagement. Instead, the component of happiness which has the strongest impact on motivational processes is eudaimonia. This raises a challenge, as it much easier to see how one might create a hedonic experience for students than a eudaimonic one. Uncovering which techniques promote a eudaimonic educational environment is a question for classroom research rather than the lab1, but the answers are likely to lie in approaches which eschew short-term emotional gratification in favour of challenge and student satisfaction over a longer time frame.

So how can neuroscience influence education?

Much of the debate around the potential impact of neuroscience on education surrounds its potential (or otherwise) to create revolutionary, novel teaching techniques. I wrote last week about why I thought that this was an unnecessarily restrictive approach. The application of the neuroscience of motivation to the classroom is a great example of how neuroscience (and cognitive psychology) research can be used to critically appraise and fine-tune what we do already, rather than re-invent the wheel. Maybe neuroscience never will revolutionise the way that information is delivered in schools (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it didn’t). But providing teachers with a reasoned and evidence-based justification for resisting the pressure to prioritise cheap emotional gains at the expense of long-term challenge and eudaimonic satisfaction, whilst also reassuring them that this is more likely to produce motivated students, rather than less? That’s not bad for starters, is it?

Footnotes:

  1. An ongoing programme looking at this very issue is the Sci-Napse project run by Paul Howard-Jones from Bristol University and funded by the EEF and the Wellcome Trust. The study is based on lab findings that the dopamine responses in brain areas associated with creating incentive motivations are stronger when rewards are provided in an uncertain or inconsistent fashion. This makes sense; uncertain rewards have been known to be highly motivating to behaviour ever since Skinner’s experiments with rats and pigeons from the 1930s. Some teachers may have ethical qualms about student learning being influenced through targeting the same circuits that were hijacked to produce the uncontrolled, addictive behaviours produced in Skinner’s pigeons, but it’s an interesting approach.
  2. Of course, the most effective methods are likely be ones which are able to produce both hedonic and eudaemonic experiences. The interaction between the two produces stronger responses than either individual system (Smith & Berridge, 2007). A combination of eudaimonia and hedonic also more strongly predicts positive work outcomes (Turban & Yan, 2016). I focus here on the importance of eudaimonia because of its specific relationship to motivation and also because of its tendency to be neglected in the classroom.

References:

Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (1995). The mind of an addicted brain: neural sensitization of wanting versus liking. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(3), 71-75.

Berridge, K. C., and Valenstein, E. S. (1991). What psychological process mediates feeding evoked by electrical stimulation of the lateral hypothalamus? Behav. Neurosci. 105, 3–14.

Berridge, K. C., and Robinson, T. E. (2003). Parsing reward. Trends Neurosci. 26, 507–513.

Berridge, K. C., and Aldridge, J. W. (2008). Decision utility, the brain and pursuit of hedonic goals. Soc. Cogn. 26, 621–646.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Happiness, flow, and human economic equality. Am. Psychol. 55, 1163–1164.

Gregory, G. H., & Chapman, C. (2012). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn’t fit all. Corwin press.

Gregory, G. H. (Ed.). (2005). Differentiating instruction with style: Aligning teacher and learner intelligences for maximum achievement. Corwin Press.

Kim, S. I. (2013). Neuroscientific model of motivational process. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(98), 2.

Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2009). Towards a functional neuroanatomy of pleasure and happiness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(11), 479–487. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.08.006

Olds, J., & Milner, P. (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology47(6), 419.

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. Am. Psychol. 55, 68–78

Smith, K. S., & Berridge, K. C. (2007). Opioid limbic circuit for reward: interaction between hedonic hotspots of nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum. Journal of Neuroscience27(7), 1594-1605.

Turban, D. B., & Yan, W. (2016). Relationship of eudaimonia and hedonia with work outcomes. Journal of Managerial Psychology31(6), 1006-1020.

‘Liking’ vs ‘wanting’. A neuroscientific view on classroom motivation

My NPJ Science of Learning Interview – ‘Educational implications of attention and distraction in teenagers’

The Nature partner journal ‘Science of Learning’ website is another useful addition to the increasing number of resources encouraging a more scientific approach to education and learning.

It’s also just gone up in my estimations greatly (!) as they’ve published an interview with me about my PhD work. Read it here. If you’re a teacher or researcher and any of this sounds interesting to you, please feel free to get in contact.

 

My NPJ Science of Learning Interview – ‘Educational implications of attention and distraction in teenagers’

Psychology for teachers

There are many superb blogs on teaching, and some which focus specifically on the links between teaching and the psychology of learning. What I feel is sometimes not available to teachers are short and accessible introductions to some key ideas regarding how we learn.

This section consists of a series of short blogs designed to introduce teachers to research findings about how students learn, with suggestions for how these ideas could influence practice and links etc for further reading. I hope that you enjoy reading them and find them useful. If anyone has any suggestions for other topics which could be added, please let me know!

It is important to realise that none of these strategies is a magic ticket on their own! Instead, they are a foundation, from which each teacher can experiment and adjust their practice as best suits their teaching style and their school environment. The ‘suggestions for practice’ are simply that – suggestions. You may be able to think of much more effective ways of incorporating a particular piece psychology into your lessons. Feel free to try out new things and to experiment, but use these evidence-based ideas as a starting point. Why not use one or more of these as the basis for a new scheme of work or learning policy at your school? Or arrange an internal CPD day to share ideas and resources?

If you find a particularly effective method that seems to improve student progress, why not contact a Psychology or Education department at a university and see if you can arrange for a larger scale trial of the idea. In fact I would encourage all teachers and schools to take part in research projects into what works in education. The more teachers and schools that can become the driving force behind research (and key partners in it), the more progress we will make in discovering what techniques really work in schools.

The ‘Psychology for Teachers’ section currently contains introductions to (in alphabetical order):

Psychology for teachers

Working memory

Basic idea:

Any time you are ‘holding something in your mind’, such as calculating a bill, remembering a new phone number or a set of directions you’ve just been given, you are using working memory – it’s the name given to our ability to hold (and also manipulate) information in our minds over short periods of time.

In adults, famous experiments from the 1950s suggested that the capacity of this memory store was ‘7 plus or minus 2’ items – in other words between 5 and 9 items, depending on the individual. We can increase this capacity with clever strategies or if the information is in different forms… but it’s still a useful guide.

Children’s working memory capacity is still developing until their mid-teens in most cases, and approximately 10% of children in any one class may display impaired working memory. This means that in a class of 9 year olds, we might expect at least 3 or so to have a WM capacity of not much more than 2-3 items. This is important, as teachers may quite often give instructions which consist of a number of steps (e.g. “Cut out the shape from the piece of paper and stick it in your, books, then finish the exercises from yesterday”). This might exceed the WM capacity of some children, leading to organisational difficulties.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Reduce the number of steps in instructions that are given at one time, or breaking down tasks into chunks.
  • Provide instructions in written forms, or some other form that can be referred back to.

Team this idea also with ‘load theory of attention’ – aim to produce activities which have high attentional load but low working memory load. Also with ‘cognitive load theory’, which helps to clarify the sorts of activities which influence working memory.

Further reading:

The WM bottleneck… https://evidenceintopractice.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/the-working-memory-model-a-brief-guide-for-teachers/

http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WM-classroom-guide.pdf

Turn it off! Working memory limitations explain why music and learning don’t often go together…

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/dont-listen-music-while-studying-david-cutler

Working memory

Metacognition: thinking about thinking

Basic idea:

Metacognition means ‘thinking about thinking’ (sometimes also translated as ‘learning to learn’), and the term is used to cover a range of approaches where students are encouraged to analyse their own learning process. For example, they might be asked to explain their thought processes and how they reached a certain conclusion or evaluate a piece of work or their academic progress. The obvious aim of these strategies is that students develop a greater degree of independence with their learning. They discover what strategies work for them, and they are able to find their own solutions to problems. They should also, presumably, become more self-reliant and resilient as well (see ‘growth mindset’).

When done well, there is good evidence that metacognition is an effective tool in improving student learning. However, successful interventions tend to be very carefully planned and thought out in terms of when and how students self-monitor, and when they don’t.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Allow the opportunity for students to discuss learning strategies for particular topics.
  • ‘Scaffolding’ in which specific strategies are taught, but with this support gradually withdrawn. Students could also have the opportunity to evaluate and adapt these strategies.
  • Give students plenty of opportunity to evaluate their work and to monitor their own progress… though not as replacement for feedback from the teacher!
  • Allow students to set goals and targets, but ensure that these are achievable and that the student actually understands what the target is and how to get there (e.g. “I must show more creativity and insight in my written answers so that I get a level 5” is likely to not be a helpful comment for a student to make, as it does uses buzzwords copied from a mark scheme rather than spelling out specifically how they are to improve).

Further reading:

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation/

Metacognition: thinking about thinking

Sleep

Basic idea:

Many of us live our lives in sleep debt – having had less sleep than we should have done. Like financial debt, sleep debt can accumulate and become more severe over time: after 2 weeks of getting 6 hours sleep a night people perform as badly on tests as people who have been awake for 24 hours non-stop (and also at the same level as people who have had a couple of alcoholic drinks!)

Children are particularly prone to sleep deprivation, which can have severe impacts on a developing brain. It is recommended that children up to age 11 are getting 10-12 hours per night of sleep, and that teenagers get 8.5-10 hours. This means that if they are getting up for school at 7am, under 11s should be in bed not long after 7pm, and adolescents not long after 9pm.

Now, of course, sleep is primarily the responsibility of parents to monitor, but given its impacts on school progress, it is something that teachers can (and I think should) take an interest in. Potentially, there are huge academic benefits to be gained through some simple (and free!) changes to students’ routines. this should be something of interest to all teachers.

Suggestions for practice:

Assuming that you do not have the authority to change your school’s start time to later in the morning (on which has been some promising research done with teenagers), you could:

  • Get your classes to keep a sleep diary (works especially well with tutor groups). I have done this and never fail to be amazed both at the variation and at how little sleep those at the extreme end are getting (from my experience 4 hours a night is not uncommon for some teenagers).
  • Educate students about sleep habits and the importance of sleep routines. A set bed time and routine building up to that time have been found to be the best predictor of children getting enough sleep.
  • Encourage them to have a ‘dark hour’ before bed, where they are not using screens
  • Suggest that caffeinated drinks are avoided in the evening.

Further reading:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/parents/sleep_matters/

http://sleepcenter.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=63

Sleep

Load theory of attention

Basic idea:

Load theory can get a little bit technical, but the basic summary of the idea is that we are less likely to be distracted by something if our main focus is occupying more of our attention. Think of attention like a full pint glass. The capacity of the glass doesn’t change size, and neither does our attentional capacity. Also, the glass is always full; in other words we always fill out attentional capacity (we always take in as much information from the information as we can). If the main focus of our attention is not providing us much information, then we will take in information from other sources (i.e. potential distractions).

Imagine doing a spot the difference task with only three objects in the picture. You would likely find the ‘different’ object very quickly, and also very easily. You would probably also find that you don’t lose yourself in the task; you are still aware of background noises or movement in your surroundings. This is because the low level of attentional load in the task is not exhausting our attentional capacity (it doesn’t fill the pint glass), so we process other things as well. Now imagine a more difficult version of the puzzle, with one change hidden in a complex picture of 30 or so objects. You will likely find this task much harder, but you would also probably be much less aware of other things happening in your surroundings as you completed it. This task would fill the ‘pint glass’ of attention, due to it’s increased attentional load, so we would be less likely to process anything else.

For teachers these findings suggest that one way of reducing distraction in the classroom is to pay attention to the attentional load of the material that is being presented. High load materials are likely to lead to reduced awareness of potentially distracting extraneous material.

Suggestions for practice:

  • Experiment with ways of increasing the attentional load of presentations, e.g. by delivering information across multiple sensory modalities.
  • Reduce the number of obvious potential distractors in classrooms, e.g. eye-catching displays around the board or front of the room where you want attention to be focused.

Team this idea also with ‘working memory’ – aim to produce activities which have high attentional load but low working memory load. Also with ‘cognitive load theory’

Further reading:

 

Call for research ideas:

Although very well established in the laboratory, there has been (to my knowledge) no attempts to translate load theory of attention into educational resources and practice. One major reason for this might be that it is difficult to imagine what a ‘high load’ educational resource might look like. For example, what would make written text ‘higher load’? If anyone has any ideas then let me know!

Load theory of attention