Avengers Endgame, Game of Thrones, and Spoilers: how to work with expectation and reward in the class

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This is definitely a great year to be alive if you’re a Marvel Universe fan. After watching the exciting Captain Marvel movie on the big screen (check my blog post about it here), the Avengers saga comes to an epic end this month. More than 20 films later! Nothing has been more epic than that in the history of cinema, one may think. The same might be true of the incredible Game of Thrones journey if we change the focus to television. As promised by the director and the producers, they delivered a memorable third episode in this 8th season. An hour and a half of tension, horror, despair, low visibility, relief, and utter joy and surprise.

If you are like me, and most people I suppose, there was a problem, though. You see, everyone involved in producing these two monuments of modern cinema and TV put a lot of extra effort into not letting anyone know what was going to happen. Contracts with clauses about spilling the beans, shooting scenes without telling the actors who they were performing with, redacted scripts, the whole nine yards. Poor Tom Holland (actor who plays Spiderman) for blurting out some of the secrets of the Avengers franchise. He had a hard time giving interviews and needed someone to supervise him.

Spoilers, ladies and gents, that was my problem.

It was hard to dodge them and one or two eventually made their way onto my screen. As their name gives away, spoilers may spoil the fun (and quite honestly, they often do). But what does that have to do with what happens in the classroom? Before you read any further, just think about how you’d feel if you knew a major plot twist of any of these franchises before watching the movie or the episode? Some of you (and I do admire you, folks) may have answered:

“I wouldn’t care at all”

Well, I do care!  And I the reason is quite simple: dopamine.

According to neuroscience, one of the most important neuromodulators in our brains is dopamine. It is involved in motivation, feeling good, happy about things. If you’re a fan and you know you’re gonna watch the movie you’ve been expecting for so long, your brain is filled with dopamine. The expectations you have about the movie, all the theories of what might happen to your favorite characters and the villains, also release dopamine. When you go to the movies and watch it and see for yourself what happens, and even get completely surprised by some unexpected events, your brain releases even more dopamine (as long as the surprises are not disappointing). However, when someone spoils the action for you, those expectations you had go down the toilet and so much for that dopamine sensation.

This is very similar to what happens in the classroom (except that Avengers and Game of Thrones make our students and ourselves produce much more dopamine hahaha). When students go to class and something unexpected happens and there’s a reward at the end, their brains are releasing dopamine not once, but twice. Going to class knowing that there will be a reward kills the unexpected and gives them a dopamine rush when they get the reward. Going to class and not knowing there will be a reward, but being told in class that they’ll get one, and finally getting it will give them two dopamine spikes, when they realize they’ll get something (unexpected) and when they actually get it (reward).

What does that tell us about planning our lessons? Well, here are a couple of tips:

  1. Try to bring a surprise. It could be a fun activity, a story about your life, a special guest, a new game, a funny video, anything. To make sure it’s really a surprise, try not repeating the same things over and over;

  2. Reward your students. It doesn’t need to be something that may cost you a lot of money (or any money at all!). Our reward systems are happy with praising, recognition or a simple token. Of course, if you want, give them something pretty cool and they’ll be more than happy.

  3. Don’t always tell them that there will be a reward or, in other words, don’t spoil the class. Unexpected rewards are better because students stay more motivated.

  4. Use rewards that are highly emotional. A touching short video or song, a story about something incredible or someone amazing. These are the types of rewards we love.

At the end of Avengers Endgame, I felt incredibly emotional and it was very satisfying. It was definitely an epic ending to all those years with such phenomenal characters. As for Game of Thrones, after the last episode, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

If anyone spoils it for me, it doesn’t mean I won’t watch episode 4, but I won’t be as motivated as I am now. And I can guarantee that if my expectations are met (I have high ones), I’ll be excited, but, if something completely unexpected and incredible happens, I won’t be able to forget it for years to come.

So, I suppose my final message is:

Be nice! No spoilers, ok?

What kinds of rewards do you use in your classrooms? I’d love to know!

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