I Don’t Want To Ruin It For You

Posted on May 25, 2012


People frequently say this when discussing a movie with a great cliffhanger. They understand that the experience of discovery that the movie presents is extremely enjoyable and they don’t want you to miss that feeling.

Similarly I wish more educators and parents would think about the development and education of children this way.

The process of figuring something out, of discovering new knowledge through iterative trial and error, is one of the most motivating and satisfying experiences a child (or adult) can have. Yet we so frequently want to show students how it works, how it’s done, how to get to the answer. We rob them of the feelings that come with discovering something on their own in the name of efficiency.

The problem is that the “efficient” route of just telling a student the information is frequently less efficient. The student may be able to regurgitate the information back immediately after being told it, but it is less likely that the student truly understands the information or will remember it long-term.

When a student has to work to discover new knowledge that sense of discovery releases dopamine in the brain:

From A Neurologist Makes The Case For The Video Game Model As A Learning Tool

No Pain, No Gain

The survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system is building skills and adaptive responses. The system is only activated and available to promote, sustain, or repeat some mental or physical effort when the outcome is not assured. If there is no risk, there is no reward. If there is no challenge, such as adding single digit numbers by a student who has achieved mastery in adding double-digit numbers, there is no activation of the dopamine-reward network.

In humans, the dopamine reward response that promotes pleasure and motivation also requires that they are aware that they solved a problem, figured out a puzzle, correctly answered a challenging question, or achieved the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why students need to use what they learn in authentic ways that allow them to recognize their progress as clearly as they see it when playing video games.

So when you try to make educational systems that are too easy you literally do “ruin it” for students as they won’t get the evolutionary reward that will motivate them to want more of the learning.

If it were up to me, parents and educators would spend more time thinking about how to create environments, situations, and activities that made the discovery of new knowledge and skills something a student had to work for. The goal would be to make that work easy enough that the students wouldn’t believe it to be impossible, but hard enough where there is a feeling of accomplishment once the knowledge is discovered.

So the next time you see your child or student struggling with something don’t immediately leap to tell them the answer or show them how it’s done. Try to figure out a way to change the environment so that the answer is more easily discovered without eliminating the sense of accomplishment they would feel if they figured it out without your help. When they look to you for help just tell them, “I don’t want to ruin it for you”.