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Hooked on Learning

Originally published on June 15, 2017

Happy Thursday!

This past Sunday I was watching 60 Minutes and there was a report about the impact of 21st century technology on the brain. Specifically they were referring to cell phones and social media. The report, “Brain Hacking” suggested that the constant desire to check your phone is not accidental:

“Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones—nearly everywhere, and at all times--are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager [Tristan Harris]…Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps, and social media to get you hooked…He is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check constantly.”

When Anderson Cooper, the reporter for this segment, asked Tristan Harris, “Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?” Harris replied:

Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology is neutral. And it’s up to use to choose how we use it. This is just not true…It’s not neutral. They want you to use in in particular ways and for long periods of time.

Later in the interview Harris talks about Snapchat—which is “the most popular messaging service for teenagers.” Apparently Snapchat created a feature called “streaks” where they keep track of how many days in a row “you’ve sent a message back and forth with someone.” People get so into prolonging their streak that they will even share their passwords with others so they can have a friend log in as them when they are on vacation, for example. Harris asks, “And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?”

Another person interviewed, Gabe Zichermann, talks about how there are also benefits to technology. He highlights Fitbits as an example of technology being used for good, noting that Fitbits encourage people to increase their movement more than ever. They also have created people who are caring about their movements in ways that a pedometer didn’t tap into. Zichermann points out, “So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad.”

I remember, when on a family trip to Florida in 1992, I was at the pool and saw a man on a cell phone. At the time I thought, “What a pompous jerk. What makes him so important that he can’t be away from the phone while he’s on vacation at the pool?!” It’s not that I am tech-phobic or that I don’t want to be connected with my friends and family—it was that at the time his technology stood out. Fast-forward 25 years and everyone poolside has their phone in their hands. Today, however, unlike in 1992, the phone is not just a phone…it’s a computer with a phone app. I would guess that over half the time we’re using our smartphone it is for a purpose other than to make a call.


This Letter, however, is not about the proliferation of smartphones. It’s about how the designers of phones, apps, and social media are using knowledge about the brain to make these modern marvels extensions of our live. It’s also about what lessons, if any, we could learn from their strategy when thinking about our teachers or students. We all took Psychology of Education courses and even those who are not educators know about Pavlov, for example. Ring the bell every time a dog is fed and when the dog hears the bell—regardless of if there is food—the dog will salivate. This is what has happened with us and our phones. Here the chime for a message and check your phone. Even when you hear someone else’s chime, you instinctively now check your own phone. Even without a chime, if time as passed, you will check you phone because you are hungry for that connection or validation. What does this have to do with our work? For me, I can’t help but wonder how we can wire the brains of our students and/or staff so that their desire to do what is being asked requires no actual thought. The dogs don’t think “I heard a bell. That means there is food. Food makes me salivate.” Dogs hear the bell and their brain automatically and without consciousness links bell with food. We hear a chime. We know that means we have received some kind of message. We check our phones. Eventually, we don’t even need to hear a chime because checking our phones has become automatic. We’re doing it subconsciously.

This feels to me like a battle between consciousness and sub-consciousness. In thinking more about this I’m thinking about how those who are designing (e.g., app makers or, for us, teachers and administrators) need to become conscious about (a) what we want the outcome to be and (b) how the brain works to create interest in doing that thing. Then you apply that knowledge of how the brain works to this specific context (people, place, task). The more conscious the designer is regarding all of this, the more the designer can make the act of doing the thing sub-conscious for the doer. In other words, if we want our students to see reading, for example, as something I just do, then we need to create the conditions so that the students are not choosing to read; rather, reading becomes the thing we do.

“Brain Hacking” states that when there is emotion connected to what we’re doing, we are inclined to behaves in ways that are different than if we were emotionally neutral. This means both that we will seek pleasure and continue to do things that give us pleasure. This also means that we will avoid pain and discontinue doing things that are not pleasurable. This leads to a series of questions that are critical, such as:

  • Are we making our workplace (for the adults) or our classrooms (for our students) pleasurable?

  • What are the features that would draw someone in and encourage them to return?

  • What do we know about the way the brain works that we could leverage to create the conditions for the adults and students to feel successful and persist in the things we want them to continue?

Take attendance as an example. For some students and adults, attendance is an issue. Now consider Snapchat’s idea of a streak? What if a teacher told his/her students that they had 100% attendance 2 days in a row and said, “Let’s see how long we can keep this going!” Is it likely (depending on the age of the students, the culture in the classroom, etc.) that this simple idea of trying to see how long the class could maintain the “streak” could encourage students to come to school? They would likely not want to disappoint their peers. They would likely not want to be the reason the streak was broken. What if two or more classrooms challenged each other with this? Now, rather than one classroom aiming for the laudable goal, you would have multiple classrooms? Change the streak of attendance to the streak of 100% of students reading each night at home or completing their homework or doing something kind for someone else?

That said, this is a fine line. Last year we shared some data with our teachers, they were demotivated. This year, a principal tried to share some data with some students and teachers. While the intention was good, the impact was not. Teachers resisted. Rather than feeling a sense of healthy competition, the teachers felt exposed, uncomfortable, and/or like they were pitted against each other. In other words, determining ways to hack into the brain to cause people to want to continue doing or using something with automaticity is not easy—and I’m sure doing so with things like reading, math, and learning is exponentially more difficult than hooking someone on a game or app.

Again, the point of this letter is not about technology. It’s about creating behaviors that support the desired outcomes. We want to think about how the brain works so that we can maximize the outcomes we are hoping to achieve. This is not meant to be Machiavellian or even manipulative—it’s meant to be strategic and intentional in the work we do. After all, I am not embarrassed to say that while educating children is absolutely designed to help people live their lives it can also be about hooking people on learning!


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