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VCAL lessons for life


From left, Jennifer Saunders, Noah Grech and Ray Mizzi, VCAL coordinator; Photo by Richard Liistro

by Leith Hillard

For Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) student Noah Grech, Year 11 studies into gaming, gambling and their effects on the brain identified an important connection between what he was studying in school and what he knew from his own life.

Noah’s interest didn’t just stem from an awareness that gamers in his peer group were spending money on loot boxes within games. The teenager was also recovering from a mental health struggle that had left him lacking motivation and drive.

He wanted to understand how the brain works.

Understanding brain chemistry

Using material produced by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, his class conducted research ‘into brain chemistry when it comes to things that can be addictive,’ explains Noah, now embarking on Year 12.

‘My findings were about the importance of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which are two of the hormones in the brain that are very important in day-to-day life and your motivation and ability to stay focused and attentive.’

‘Gaming is very much about fun, but there will always be risks that people should be mindful of.’ - Noah Grech

Noah was most surprised by the ‘very strong similarities between the effects gaming and gambling have on the brain and hard illicit substances; the very similar chemical changes that occur. It makes it very obvious that these things can be addictive.

‘Gaming is very much about fun, but there will always be risks that people should be mindful of.’

‘Be ahead of the game’

VCAL is a practical or ‘hands-on’ option for students in Years 11 and 12 designed to prepare them for further education, training or employment.

The Foundation’s VCAL resources, part of the ‘Be ahead of the game’ school education program, cover:

  • literacy – ‘Love the Game’ and ‘Potential influences’
  • numeracy – ‘What are the odds?’ and ‘Budgeting, losses and probability’
  • personal development – ‘Knowing the score’ and ‘Knowing when it’s a concern’.

The Foundation’s material focused Braybrook’s Caroline Chisholm Catholic College teacher Jennifer Saunders’ attention on an issue of interest to the gamers in her classroom. Teaching the subject matter for the first time, there was scepticism when she spoke about a link between gaming and addiction. (‘What are you talking about? That’s rubbish.’ Rolling of the eyes.)

Once the students researched the topic, however, doubt was replaced with shock.

‘They made comments like, “You’ve got to watch out. There is a link and it can easily get away from you,”’ she says, delighted that the lessons, extended out from those resources, ‘hit the mark’.

‘They made the link to mental health and addiction.’ - Jennifer Saunders, Caroline Chisholm Catholic College

It’s just what Mark Riddiford, the Foundation’s Senior Prevention Advisor (Education), loves to hear.

‘These units have been written and piloted by teachers and curriculum specialists,’ he says. ‘They’re designed to be user friendly and flexible. All required materials are included and teachers can pick and modify tasks to meet their students' needs.’

The relevance of the subject matter led to animated class discussions about loot boxes leading to gambling and the effects of dopamine in the brain.

‘They made the link to mental health and addiction,’ continues Jennifer.

‘When students are presented with areas of study they can relate to in their life outside school, the work and the quality of the learning is a lot higher. Even if it’s a subtle link like gambling and playing games on your iPhone, it’s a lot better than researching things that don’t affect you.’

Finding a career direction

For Noah, the lessons came after he had accessed help and support from mental health services.

‘Since I got the help,’ he says, ‘I feel a lot more inclined to learn more and gain a better understanding of myself and my brain and how I work.’

Noah’s mother Rosy praises the ‘thought-provoking’ information.

‘I’m not surprised the extensive knowledge Noah has acquired about the brain during his own mental health journey has triggered interest,’ she says.

‘Since I got the help, I feel a lot more inclined to … gain a better understanding of myself.’ - Noah Grech

In fact, the material has also pointed Noah towards a career direction, something he’d previously been ‘really, really worried about. I didn’t have a specific area I was passionate about for a long time,’ he says.

That’s all changed now that he’s learned to assess scientific material. Armed with research and presentation skills, he’s identified that he’s ‘interested in substance abuse, addiction, gambling and gaming’ and plans to study a Certificate IV in Mental Health after Year 12.

‘Before this topic, I never made that link that chemically they were similar and [that gaming and gambling] should be treated the same way these other addictions are.’