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Get In the Game: The Importance of Challenges to Learning


This series has explored the multifaceted impact of grades on learning. I began by establishing validity and reliability related to grades (“Food for Thought”), celebrating the power of growth (“One Small Step”) before examining the potential downsides of grades, including discouragement of risk-taking (“Finding Your Happy Place”) and how we grade children using math they don’t even understand (“It Doesn’t Add Up”).  This letter emphasizes the importance of challenge, demonstrating how a focus on learning itself fosters a more rewarding educational experience. By moving beyond the limitations of grades, schools can create learning environments that empower students to embrace challenges and celebrate their growth.

When my youngest son, Oliver, was four, he would spend a lot of time playing New Super Mario Bros. 2 on his sister’s DS when she was distracted by something else. One day, I came home and my husband showed me a video of Oliver playing the game. He recorded the video because he thought Oliver’s reactions to the game were hilarious. When I watched the video, I saw something additional—I saw the highest form of engagement—absorption. The rollercoaster of Oliver’s absorption lasted far longer than the three minutes of the unedited video my husband recorded. Here is an edited version that is only one minute (you'll want to turn on the subtitles).

I wish I could take credit for Oliver’s determination to persevere as though this was something I instilled in him, but that would be a lie. Oliver’s grit regarding this game (or any other) has nothing to do with some explicit expectations from my husband or me about not giving up. There are plenty of things in his life that we have wanted him to persevere in that he was more than willing to abandon. His persistence with this game had everything to do with the way that video games are structured. 

Even if you are not a “gamer,” most of us have played a video game at one time or another. If you are somewhere around my age, your first game was Super Mario Brothers or Duck Hunt because they both came with the original Nintendo console. Maybe you are older than I am and your first exposure to video games was by watching your children play and you didn’t play one until you had games on your smartphone and you got sucked into Candy Crush. Maybe you are younger than I am and you are a “digital native” who has always been around technology. You may have had several consoles in addition to an iPod, iPad, or other handheld gaming device. Whatever your experience or age, I have no doubt that you have either been drawn into a game or seen someone who has. 

Why does this happen to so many? It’s not the allure of the technology. It’s the design of the process. Video games are designed to work within one’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The ZPD is the sweet spot where learning is neither too easy nor too difficult. An average ten-year-old, for example, would not want to read The Cat in the Hat because it is too easy but would also not want to read The Taming of the Shrew because it is too hard. Both of these texts are outside of the average ten-year-old’s ZPD. On the other hand, it is within a ten-year-old’s ZPD to read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. When something is too hard or too easy, people tend to opt-out because when things are too easy, we feel disinterested and when things are too hard, we feel defeated. 

In short, learning and engagement happen when we operate within each person’s ZPD. For example, skiers are given multiple slopes to choose from. Newer skiers take an easier slope whereas advanced skiers challenge themselves with black diamond slopes. If the slope is too easy for a newer skier, they find a harder course; if the slope is too hard for an advanced skier, they find an easier course. In other words, as we test ourselves, we calibrate to the conditions, and when we become more efficacious, we recalibrate.

Let’s take this into the context of school. In schools, because most of the students’ work is graded and since the grades are all averaged together, it is important that students have the opportunity to get “good grades.” Given that the students only have one attempt at each graded assignment, then the work cannot be on the high end of a student’s ZPD since if it was, the student would need multiple attempts to succeed. In other words, when teachers grade everything and students only have one chance to do the work, the work needs to be easy enough for students to get 100s the first time they do it. Challenging work would not earn students 100s if they only had one chance to do it, so the challenge of the work needs to be reduced. Interestingly, challenge is a key component of engagement. I refer to this as the Goldilocks Principle. If you recall, the story of “Goldilocks,” is about a girl who breaks into a house where she does things like sit in chairs and eat porridge. Papa Bear’s things are too big or hot, Mama Bear’s things are too small or cold, and Baby Bear’s things are “just right.” 

Going back to the video of Oliver, it is clear that he is operating within the high end of his ZPD. He’s not immediately dying (too high) or immediately moving to the next level (too easy). He is playing for a while, testing new strategies, and then succeeding and struggling over and over again. This pattern of learning is challenging, yet he is not deterred–he’s engrossed. He’s committed. He wants to keep at it.

In schools, we do the opposite. We minimize struggle as much as we can. We create ways to avoid failure and maximize “success.” However, rather than creating patterns of learning that are engrossing and fostering commitment and persistence, we create tasks students can’t wait to be done with because they’re so disengaging. Again, my point is not to say that schools should be gamified or that we need to add technology bells and whistles to hook kids. My point is appropriate challenge fuels learning whereas grades and ease do not.

Think about it...because of failure and challenge, we have to limit how much people can play video games. Now imagine if we could do the same thing in school with learning!

So, let’s look at how video games create challenges to fuel learning. The first level of video games is often very easy so you can see the basics of what you will need to do. Then, the game really starts. With that, you will almost certainly lose a few times before you progress to the next level. However, when you lose, you realize something about the game and that fuels your desire to apply that learning immediately. It is that virtuous feedback loop of failure and learning that we find absorbing. We do not want to give up because we feel like we are just about to do what we haven’t been able to do yet. As we are learning what will make us successful at this level, we are also being primed for skills that will be needed at the next level, so that when we “level-up,” we are sufficiently able to enter that level but insufficiently prepared to master that level. Indeed, we would not want to play a game where we could breeze through the levels the first time we played it; that would be too easy and we would give up. No adult would want to play an alphabet game, but neither would a child who already knew the alphabet. 

Educational researcher, James Gee, writes about the connection between video games and learning in his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Specifically, Gee offers three principles teachers can use to focus on learning and not grades. 

  1. People will not put in effort if they are not even willing to try in a domain

  2. Success without effort is not rewarding

  3. Effort with little success is equally unrewarding.

Gee’s observation about effort and success seems self-evident, yet classrooms are not always created with this in mind. Still, classrooms that prepare students for failure, also prepare students for success. They do so by being forthcoming with the fact that (as anyone who plays video games knows), there is much to learn when things don’t work out the first or fiftieth time. They do so by stating that risk-taking will ultimately be rewarded but risk-aversion will create stagnation and grow fear. They do so by fostering trust, both in the person who is the authority so that when the failure occurs there is not a negative consequence, but also trust in the person, taking the risk to know that success will come with commitment and effort.

In this fifth letter of my multi-part series on grading, I've explored how schools can improve learning by incorporating the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the principles of video game design. This means offering students tasks that are challenging but achievable, fostering a growth mindset that embraces failure as a learning opportunity, and providing immediate feedback that allows students to adjust their strategies. By creating a safe space for experimentation and risk-taking, schools can cultivate a love of learning that transcends the pursuit of good grades.


P.S. I know I've shared this video before, but considering the topic this week, I can't think of a better Catch than Mark Rober's TEDx Talk, "The Super Mario Effect."The YouTube start and former NASA engineer describes how this data-backed mindset for life gamification has stuck with him along his journey, and how it impacts the ways he helps (or tricks) his viewers into learning science, engineering, and design.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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08 may

Loved Mark Rober's TEDx Talk. If it weren't for your posts I would miss these gems. Thank you for taking the time each week to enlighten us

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