Which is Better?

Brain Based

That’s how one of my favorite TV commercials starts out. There’s a guy in a suit sitting on a low chair, with preschoolers seated around him. He asks questions like, “Which is better, faster or slower?” This month’s question is, “Which is better, more fun or less fun?”

The answer may surprise you!

You could have guessed that your students would say, “More fun!” Many teachers would answer, “Less fun, but better learning!”

So, which one is right?

Actually, you can get the best of both worlds. How? It’s time for the research.

PART ONE: Brain Discovery

The neurotransmitter that most evokes our sense of pleasure is dopamine. But did you know that dopamine is also associated with improved working memory AND taking action? In short, your kids can be more motivated when they enjoy class, PLUS they have a better working memory (Floresco 2013).

But wait; there’s more!

The brain would rather have fun, too. Faced with a decision between two classroom options, one labeled “80% fun,” the other “20% hard work and misery,” which would your students choose? The overall class time is exactly the same, but most students would pick “80% fun.” The language used to describe options often influences what students choose, a phenomenon called ‘the framing effect’.

Researchers linked the framing effect to neural activity in a key emotion center in the human brain, the amygdala, by using fMRI scans. They also identified another region, the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex, that may moderate the influence of emotion on decisions. The more activity subjects had in this area, the less susceptible they were to ‘the framing effect’. Statements made with a greater downside risk activates the amygdala. In other words, the more we use our frontal lobes and the less we use the amygdala, the less we are likely to base our decisions on emotion. Sounds like, “Duh?” research, but it’s actually profound.

PART TWO: Applications and Contributions

As you work with others, framing is the “spin” you put on things. I call it an ‘intentional bias’. We all have our biases, but framing is very intentional. For example, you can say,

“That last quiz was a disaster. One in five completely failed it. If we don’t
ensure everyone does their daily reviews, nobody will pass it next time.”


“Good work for most of you on the last quiz. We aren’t yet at 100% pass rate, so this week we’ll be trying out a few different things to get everyone in the pass column.”

The framing effect could realistically be used all day long, and all year long. Too much can be annoying and a lot of work for you. But when things are not working well, one place to notice is how you frame the daily events. For example:

“Class, I’m worried. You have only five minutes left. If you don’t get your act together,
your team loses out and you’ll never make the deadline.”

Or, you could say,

“Attention everyone: You’re all right on track. In your last five minutes, be sure
everyone gets his or her two items listed and the team report is finished just
like the posted sample. This will ensure everyone gets full credit. Now turn to
your team mates and say, ‘We can do it!’”

Notice how there are many ways to say the same thing. We all have our biases. Why not put a positive spin to things so that students feel more capable and energized? Let me know how this works for you.

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