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Building Empathic Design Through Rigorous Science

With the end of SXSW Edu, I was most fortunate to have encountered both an amazing piece of technology, paired with a designer who whisks one away with his incredible dedication and commitment to improving classroom instruction and student learning. I had the distinct pleasure of attending a session named “We’re doing gamification wrong: Kids want to learn”, where the underlying misconception of the presentation was “Get this right and unlock game time.”

Through his dissertation from the M.I.T. Media Lab, Dr. Elliott Hedman from Colorado, created a technology he called MOXO sensors. The sensors are designed to measure the biometric human responses to stimuli, thus producing a measurable series of facts and reading to support student learning, and more important, when they learn. Dr. Hedman further shared that not only did he record how one’s body reacted, he also incorporated eyewear that documented exactly where the wearer was focused during the session. These measurements were recorded in a series of peaks and valleys, like those shown below, where a kindergarten student was attempting to add, while listening to an automated voice instructing how each step must go. The times indicated with green lines, show that the students engagement declined consistently, with intermittent attempt of trying to solve the problem, which were identifying with the vertical white lines. During the session, we wee also fortunate to see a video showing that during the programmed voices attempt at instruction, the student’s eyes were everywhere they should not have been, which proved humorous during the session, but realistic in the classroom.

Once it was clear where the data read, one could see in the charts below, how young people had significant peaks and valleys when it came to task, activities, or just relaxing in a ball pit, which was the case with image number three.







While mPath has gone on to use this technology for corporations or numerous sizes and successes, Dr. Hedman told me in a private conversation, that his passion is K-8 education, improving instruction techniques, and celebrating the results that come forth.

7 ways to foster a feeling of learning –courtesy of mPath website

1.Interactive, not passive. Children feel learning after actively solving problems. In order to think, solve, and eventually feel that success they have to be the ones clicking, choosing, and getting to the right answer. Dominic skipped past all the text we showed him until a problem was in front of him. Only when he was asked for input did he try to make sense of what the “IV” meant in the question.

2.If they don’t know they can fail, they won’t know they succeeded. When Dominic first started out his lesson he clicked through, guessing each question to get the star, but when he found out he had to get the answers right to get the star, he went back and tried again, looking at what the problem was asking. Compare this to older versions where children always “leveled up” regardless of incorrect answers and consequentially never moved beyond rapid guessing.

3.Learning happens when kids can try until they get it right. Dominic didn’t learn Roman numerals the first time he tried again, either. He had to do the same four questions over and over again until he verbally said, “Oh, I get it.” It’s after answering a problem wrong, students begin to ask, “What do I not know here?” Good programs capitalize on that moment.

4.Try-It-Again allows for children to set goals and identify as learners. Dominic’s friend started playing with him, and the two kept trying to figure out the answers together. They had a goal: get that star. But if Dominic was told he failed and couldn’t try again, how could we expect him to still care about trying future difficult tasks? After a failed answer, one computer savvy middle school student deleted the browser’s history and all of the week’s corresponding data to be able to try again and show he “knows” it. Across the spectrum of kids we tested, very seldom did they give up on a problem when given the choice to try again, sometimes trying ten or more times.

5.For a kid to feel they learned it, they have to feel they earned it. One of the top complaints kids gave us with some of the original lessons was the content was too easy: “baby lessons.” When children don’t feel that sense of challenge and thinking hard, their pride in accomplishing a task diminishes. The same is true for giving feedback. Natasha told us, “It’s not fair they give you the answers,” requesting that she still be able to try after two to three guesses — students want to figure things out on their own. Giving students an answer tells the student, “You cannot figure this out on your own.”

6.Kids need a clear framework to acknowledge their accomplishments and make learning goals visible. Without an external symbol like a badge or a coin or content unlocking to recognize an accomplishment, kids struggle to create actionable goals for their learning. When we gave our initial reading prototype to children, their feelings of learning were weak: “all” they did was read a book. When we attached six coins that lead to a simple badge if they answered every reading question correctly, students who were not reading the passages started rereading to ensure they could answer correctly. Like the star at the end of a Super Mario level, these coins represented a form of acknowledgement and accomplishment that clearly communicates success criteria. Without these coins, correct answers did not carry meaning or weight. Video games also create acknowledgement: helping a frog cross the street, surviving for five minutes, or beating a boss are all strong forms of acknowledgement. For struggling learners in particular, external markers can support motivation by making growth visible.

7.Grades and Quizzes can shift focus away from the feeling of learning. Starting in Middle School, grades and quizzes can be strong motivators. While it is good to see students motivated and engaged during the quiz, these quizzes tend to not be moments of learning: no feedback, scaffolding, or teaching. Our sensors showed that with an increase concentration on passing the quiz, students stopped being excited by the non-graded learning beforehand. In our digital lessons we tie grades and acknowledgement across the lesson — not just at the end when the learning part is done.

When we instantiated these design principles into our prototypes, kids started giving fist pumps upon getting correct answers, telling their parents they did not want to leave, and asking us where they could access the prototype online. These principles spark and cultivate a feeling of learning. For struggling students, this may be the only learning context in which they feel a sense of success and growth. Children have that inherent desire to learn, and we as designers owe it to them to nurture and sustain that in our digital learning products. We see a future where students across all levels can be as excited as Abbey was when she learned 26+7 for the first time, but only after careful application of student-centered design principles focused on cultivating a feeling of learning.

What would it look like for educational technology designers to focus design success criteria on cultivating the feeling of learning? Effective classrooms already have teachers who set clear success criteria and corresponding expectations; they cultivate the feeling of learning. At New York Toy Fair recently, education vendors proudly claimed, “The kids learn and they do not even know it!” What would happen if instead, we spark and nurture the feeling of learning, and that feeling is our doorway to engagement?

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