Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has long been associated with the reward system within the brain’s structure. The release of dopamine is a response to the anticipation of a reward. The connection between the expectation and the production of this neurotransmitter is formed when we experience an unexpected reward. That is when we encounter a pleasant surprise our feelings reflect the output of both the dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin is about the satisfaction after the consumption of a reward; dopamine becomes a predictor whenever there is a potential reward present.
Repetition develops a cognitive connection between the situation and the outcome, and it is then the dopamine supplies the ‘fuel' to drive the desired behaviour. Eventually, this relationship between the stimulus and the reward outcomes becomes entrenched and the presentation of environmental conditions automatically ignites the dopamine release and behaviour becomes almost reflexive.
The implications for teachers is clear; if we can assist, in the first instance an association of school-based activities with an ‘unexpected’ reward and this experience is consolidated then when our students present their ‘work' they will be automatically engaged. Eventually, the constancy of the ‘reward' for attending school is not required to initiate the dopamine led motivation, by then the expectations are established.
The process of the development of this dopamine drive develops as follows:
- You get an unexpected reward
- Understand how this happened
- Dopamine is the seeking of ‘how this happens’ identifying the conditions that precede the reward.
It is important to remember that the provision of an identifiable reward is the expectation then the effect of the motivation can die down. However, school life is embedded as a pleasant experience, and more importantly, the teacher can use the process outlined above to introduce new work.
However, when working with students who you wish to re-engage in learning through the use of the dopamine cycle, you have to commence at the very beginning. For them, school is predictably a source of negative consequences, and the continual lack of motivation deletes the natural supplies of dopamine. They are in class with a relatively disadvantaged position, even in access to the dopamine cycle compared to other students. To change this, we can provide that ‘unexpected reward’ enough times, we can stimulate the dopamine response, and there is a chance we can change that expectation! These students are quite capable of becoming motivated about school, but you have to be patient. When we teach them to connect success with school, we are in a sense extinguishing a robust negative association, and so we must try not to reproduce conditions that will sustain the existing response.
This link between a stimulus and response is a memory, and like all memory development, the more powerful the reward, the more serotonin, and dopamine are released. In future this dopamine will focus the student's behaviour on seeking the same experience; they become very goal driven.
So what is the lesson for teachers? Dopamine has the potential to be a great motivator for your students. The new task must have echoes of previously successful assignments but must have an additional pay-off. When the students have already engaged the strength of the new ‘reward' does not need to be great. In a sense, we just build on existing, desired structures.
Those students who have a history of neglect and abuse that have carried their negative attitudes to school where they have been reinforced require a lot more work in building a positive association that will eventually produce a dopamine response to learning. As always it is critical to be consistent and predictable to overcome existing behaviours and develop a new approach to school. The great news is that you will experience the most significant rewards when you achieve this and you will make a real difference to that child and your class!