Instant Gratification is Good For You: Lessons for Education
Contrary to popular belief, instant gratification is a good thing. It’s good for us to get instantaneous feedback for our actions. It’s good for us to immediately know whether or not we have conjugated a Spanish verb correctly, or if our golf grip and swing are proper. Gratification, in most cases, is really just positive feedback. It’s a reward for doing something in the desired manner.
In most areas of life, feedback is either nonexistent or delayed. Throughout much of our education it takes days or even weeks for us to determine whether or not we did our homework assignments correctly. We’re at the mercy of our overburdened teachers, and receive feedback only when they’re able to grade our assignments. Tests are similar. It often takes two weeks for tests to be returned, at which point we can see what we didn’t quite understand. Each of these feedback gaps is an impediment to learning.
This is where technology can help. Much has been written about the digitization and gamification of learning. Technologists have painted a picture of the world in which students receive instantaneous feedback for their work inside of a digital whiteboard or classroom -- allowing them to quickly correct their mistakes and improve. Others have written about education as a game, in which students gain points and move up levels depending on their performance. While each of these visions can be labeled soulless and depressing, it’s likely that these educational set ups would be more engaging and motivating than the average sleepy classroom of today.
The fact of the matter is that we live in a world with highly stimulating and “addicting” new behaviors. These activities have come to dominate the attention of almost everyone in the span of roughly ten years. For “wholesome” activities, like studying and scholastic learning, to compete, they need to evolve. To figure out how, let’s first look at the most “addicting” new behaviors and technologies:
- Social Media (Facebook, etc.)
- Mobile Gaming
What do all of these have in common? First of all, they’re all social. The most popular mobile games all have a social hook or some sort. This makes sense, we’re social creatures. In addition, all of them give people instantaneous feedback. Each action done in these systems results in a response of some sort. In mobile games, these responses are from the game (I swipe my finger and an object in the game moves) and one’s friends (a friend challenges me to a duel in the game). With social media and texting, the responses are from one’s friends. In addition, we generally receive responses to our posts and messages within seconds or, at the most, hours. For other behaviors to compete, they need to contain some social relevance and provide quick feedback.
School is already social -- it has that going for it. It’s the place where each of us is socialized and acculturated. We all receive instant feedback when it comes to our social lives at school (we yell at a kid on the playground, we get in a fight). However, when it comes to scholastic activity in the classroom, this same dynamic goes out the window. Solo reading or busy-work often dominates “class time”, and group work easily turns into gossip time. The question is: How do we make learning social while also providing students with feedback on their thinking?
There are many solutions. Some, like certain teaching techniques, are old school. Some, like computerized and gamified learning, are new school. The true danger of computer-based learning is that it becomes too isolating and not social enough. It seems silly to build social computer games when students have the real thing sitting right next to them. Social learning systems are probably best for home-schooled children and those who, for whatever reason, are isolated. Perhaps instant feedback tablet tests or programs can be incorporated into group classroom activities. But, let’s not forget the power of good teachers who, without fancy devices, provide students with socially engaging learning opportunities that involve instant feedback. It’s easy to dream up amazing technological solutions that are, at their core, better solved by passionate and experienced people. In the quest for better educational technology, we may come to realize that “no technology” is the best solution.