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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Imagine you are placed in the following scenarios:

  • You are dropped off at the top of a ski resort's steepest run when you've only had experience on the beginner slopes.
  • You have to spend your day on the bunny hill when you're an expert skier.
  • You play a game of darts with the target two feet away.
  • You play a game of darts with the target 200 feet away.
  • You are a 3rd grade student trying to do a crossword puzzle designed for experts.
  • You are an adult trying to do a crossword puzzle designed for children.

In each of these extremes, you would feel either frustrated or bored, depending on your level of achievable challenge. Reflecting on those personal feelings helps us understand what it feels like for students who do not have the foundational background to understand the new topics the class is learning or who have already mastered the current material and are bored by having to listen to lessons that don't introduce new information for them.

Challenge is a powerful motivator when students take on tasks they find meaningful and, through their efforts and perseverance, succeed. As Mark Twain wrote, "The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

Achievable Challenge Requires Individualization

As I wrote in my previous blog, A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool blog and the accompanying video, the most popular computer games take players through increasingly challenging levels as they became more and more skillful. As skill improves, the next challenge stimulates new mastery to just the right extent that the player could reach with practice and persistence. Students need challenge suited to their background knowledge and abilities if they are to remain motivated to persevere and build mastery of foundational knowledge.

The video game model is ideal for kids lacking in foundational knowledge, but it is not necessary for all kids at all times. Games are intrisincally motiating by design; the teacher doesn't need to design this. Games take care of providing students with incremental progress recognition that results in the dopamine-pleasure response that motivates persevance and sustains engagement.

The Role of Scaffolding

The computer game model correlates to using achievable, incremental, challenge, with goal-progress recognition. Scaffolding can provide learners with cues, hints, and partial solutions to keep them progressing and motivated. To achieve the motivating goal-progress recognition of computer games, students can conference with teachers on their achievable goal, such as progressing from reading 10 to reading 15 pages a night. The class assignment might me 20 pages a night, but that would be an unachievable challenge for the student. By mutual agreement, a more achievable goal can be set at 15, such that he is willing to apply effort because the goal seems in reach. He can keep a record of the pages read, and see on a bar graph or just from the increase in total pages read in a week, that he has reached his goal. Even though the 15 pages is still not enough to meet the class requirement and reaching his goal will not mean getting an "A", he will have the intrinsic motivation of recognizing goal achievement. He's gotten to the next level of the video game. He may not be at level 10, but he's gone from level 3 to 4, and that will keep him "playing the game."

An example of lowering the barrier, not the bar, is to scaffold students learning to calculate the avarage (mean) of a series of numbers. The differentiation for achievable challenge would be to make progress in learning the procedure of calculating the average of a group of numbers, but using numbers for which students have adequate foundational knowledge. Some students can work with whole numbers while others work with decimals and fractions, depending on their specific background knowledge. All students will learn the process of finding the average, so when the students working with whole numbers build their foundational knowledge of fractions and decimals, they will be able to apply the procedure they learned with whole numbers to finding the average of a series of decimal numbers without having to be taught that procedure separately from the rest of the class.

Demonstrating Incremental Progress

Strategy 1: Use Rubrics

One approach to demonstrating incremental progress in foundational knowledge is by using a type of rubric. (My apologies here for oversimplifying and misidentifying the purpose of rubrics, which is not to serve as checklists based on the numbers of errors.) A rubric-like system can be used to provide the needed motivation through evidence of incremental progress by breaking "complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks," as Mark Twain put it, so students can see progress within the rubric section in which they choose to focus their effort.

If a student does C level writing assignments due to limited understanding of many facets of the task such as grammar, punctuation, topic sentences, supporting evidence, spelling, and transitions, the task of building the skills in all those areas to get a higher grade on the next paper due in four weeks is not an achievable challenge.

However, if students see on a rubric-like checklist that they can move up from a 1 out of 5 to a 3 out of 5 in spelling if they drop down to two spelling errors per page, they can perceive that as an achievable challenge. With encouragement and suggestions about how to check spelling, they will apply the effort. When it is time to return the next writing assignment, consider first meeting with the students working on specific rubric goals and showing them their rubric scoring before returning a formal grade. This will show them their incremental progress within the areas they focused their effort. They will experience the dopamine-pleasure response and intrinsic motivation of achieving a challenge, even though their overall grades may be only minimally changed.

The feedback demonstrating their incremental progress provides intrinsic reinforcement similar to the multiple progressive skill levels found in the most compelling video games. The recognition of the progress from their efforts results in the same dopamine-pleasure response the brain experiences from game feedback that a challenge was achieved successfully. As in the computer games, this reward motivates the brain to seek that reward again, and sustains students' perseverance to the next progressive challenge

Strategy 2: Flexible Grouping

The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Council (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2008), a national survey, asked more than 700 Algebra 1 teachers about the challenges they face. The most frequent written-in response (as opposed to responses chosen from among various options) mentioned "handling different skill levels in a single classroom".

The panel's conclusion was that flexible ability grouping, with students at similar levels of achievement, serves students without the flaws of tracking. Because of different math backgrounds, learning strengths, reading skills, and English language proficiency, students have varying levels of achievable challenge in different math topics, so flexible groupings should be designed so students can move easily between them, depending on their mastery of specific math topics.

Effort-Goal Graphs if Incremental Progress

Creating effort-to-progress graphs shows students their incremental goal progress in a concrete way to mimic the incremental progress feedback provided by getting to the next level on a computer game. The additional benefit of adding in the effort factor on the graph (time spent or number of practices completed) is to show them that their effort toward their goal results in progress. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is where the brain develops the executive functions, such as the ability to recognize the effort to progress correlation and to resist immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals. The PFC is the last part of the brain to mature, in a process that continues well into the 20s. What seems obvious to adults is not recognized as an effort to goal-progress correlation by young brains without explicit evidence.

Students keep records and make (or fill in templates of) bar graphs of the time spent on or the number of practices each day or week (depending on age or subject) and include feedback from formative and summative feedback (both credit and self-corrected quizzes).


The power of this visual model is that students can see that their level of success is under their control. A Department of Education 2008 report determined that students who seek to master an academic topic with mastery-oriented goals show better long-term academic development than do their peers whose main goals are to get good grades or outperform others, thus the value of including feedback other than formal grades and of metacognition. Eventually, effort-progress graphs can be used to keep more detailed information based on metacognition, such as patterns about their best strategies for specific types of goals.

Students can savor successes and be acknowledged without having to be embarrassed by low scores or the motivation focus of outperforming others because the measurements on the graph are of progress toward a goal, without a need to write the starting number. This means the first designation need just say, "starting place" and subsequent graphs are amount by which the student increased from that point. Two students who selected a goal of mastering different segments of the multiplication tables (one worked on the 5s and the other on the 9s) can each get the same amount of increase on their bar graphs based on progress.

Journaling and Letter-Writing for Additional Support

Additional positive results occur when students journal, write letters for portfolios, or write letters to parents about their observations and positive feelings. They can also write versions of these letters for students who will be in your class the following year (always a motivator for the recipient and a reinforcement of success for the writer).

With the graphs of incremental progress, short-term goals are recognized by students as steps toward their long-term goals. The dopamine-reward motivation from this recognition can then be recognized as related to their perseverance, again, just as on the video games they work at for hours, with failure after failure, as they eventually master the skill needed to reach the next level and get that pleasure-reward the dopamine system provides and they gradually recognize they enjoyed the challenge of the academic work much like they do the challenge of the computer game......ah the building of resilience!

What is Your Realistic Achievable Challenge?

Creating individualized plans, that set students on appropriately challenging, goal-directed paths, is time-consuming. Your support is needed to help students make connections to prior knowledge, to collaborate on and determine mutually acceptable goals, and to provide direct instruction when needed.

The costs of extra planning time are offset, however, by significant rewards, as evidenced by students' successes and their improved confidence and attitudes, as well as their achievement on standardized tests. Another likely benefit you may enjoy is a reduction in the time required for basic behavioral management in the classroom.

Advances in computer instruction will increase opportunities for individualized learning using digital, video, and audio media, and even virtual-reality avatars. For now, though, your students need your efforts to differentiate instruction and practice based on your knowledge of their learning differences, interests, skills, and strengths to provide them with the motivation, perseverance, and resilience that comes from learning at their individualized achievable challenge levels.

A Practical Approach to Getting Started

Most teachers are already working far beyond the school day and into their weekends without instructional aides or adequate prep time. Considerable effort and time is required to provide students with instruction and practice at individual levels of achievable challenge. It is not possible to do for all students all the time. Find your own level of achievable challenge by considering what is achievable for you in terms of differentiating your students' learning. Consider starting with one or two students during a unit of instruction where most children are at similar levels of foundational knowledge.

Celebrate your own success by taking time to see the difference you made for your students' achievement, behavior, and attitudes, and be mindful of how you feel when things go well. You'll stimulate and strengthen your own neuronal network for differentiating and planning for achievable challenge, and be ready to take on the next challenge, fueled by your dopamine-pleasure response.

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