Struggling = Learning

The other day, an online colleague of mine, Peter G. Shea, introduced me to the term “disfluent” from the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. The term means “harder to process at first but stickier once it was really understood.” The term resonated with me because I believe one of the reasons games are so effective for learning is because struggle is built into the process of playing a game. Most times a player must struggle at first and then, slowly, the game makes sense and mastery is obtained. This is essential to learning and growth.

I’ve written about the importance of failure before in Games, Gamification and the Freedom to Fail but disfluency is a slightly different. With disfluency you don’t fail per say but you struggle, you are required to work through an issue or problem or situation and then you develop the answer.

An example from the book is that a struggling school district had all types of data from dashboards, spreadsheets and other electronic sources of information but the problem was information overload and teachers were not making good decisions in spite of the fact that they had all this electronic, neatly packaged data. So the schools in the district were still failing even with a preponderance of data.

However, a turn around occurred when the teachers were told to stop looking at the data in dashboards and on spreadsheets. Instead, the teachers were asked to manipulate the information by hand. Each school, under orders from the central office, created a “data room” where teachers had to transcribe test scores onto index cars, draw graphs on butcher paper taped to the walls and run impromptu experiments, like “Do test scores improve if kids are placed in smaller reading groups?” Rather than simply receiving information, teachers were force to engage with it. The data became disfluent–harder to work with at first but then, once they started manipulating the data, it started to make sense. And this helped to turn the school around. The schools improved because the teachers learned to understand the data–not because they had more data. It was harder at first but the “hands-on” insights made the data more meaningful and, in turn, more actionable.

So when you really want learners to understand (I know it’s not a behaviorally measurable verb but it’s still important) content or concepts, force them to struggle with the concept or the idea. The act of struggling and manipulating and engaging with content will make it more meaningful and more memorable. A great way to achieve that is to create a game or gamified approach.

For example, one time in teaching how to conduct an audit, instead of the traditional approach of presenting learning objectives, terminology and the audit forms we changed the approach. When learners came into the classroom we simply presented with this statement “You are conducting and audit and you suspect a senior VP of embezzling $10,000. What do you do?” The learners had to gather the right information and take the right steps. They certainly struggled at first but then learned what they needed to do as a result of the struggle.

Next time you create instruction, consider making it disfluent.

Posted in: Design, Games, Gamification

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Karl Kapp
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