One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, there are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

Border Run

As part of our new adventure, I got to do what the local ex-pats here call a “border run” this last Sunday. This post will probably be more interesting to ex-pats in Costa Rica but if you want to see what it takes to live here, read on.

Generally in Costa Rica you can stay 90 days as a tourist and then you have to exit the country and return. Most of the ex-pats do this. Deb and I applied for a “rentista visa” (which I described a few posts back) and that means that we don’t have to exit and return every 90 days.

However, we now have a car and that adds some complications. For us to be able to drive here with a foreign driver’s license, we need to exit and return every 90 days, just like the other ex-pats.

I had planned to detail the whole process, but as I was looking for photos of the various forms, I found Gord and Elisha’s wonderful blog post (In Nica Now). They documented the entire process from the Nicaraguan ex-pat view and had lots of good photographs. Instead of recreating their detail here, I’ll focus on some perspectives on the people and process from a first-timer.

In Playa Potrero, we are pretty close to the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so most folks choose to do a border run to Nicaragua at Penas Blancas (“white plains”) 153K (95 miles) away. It takes about 3 hours to get there. I had originally planned to drive up to the border crossing alone since Deb was already flying back to Seattle for work and would get her new entry stamp that way. I wasn’t looking forward to driving poor Moose all the way there and back and really didn’t want to burn all that gas. As I pinged a few friends to see if they also wanted to go, I learned from my friend Dusty that Tamarindo Transfers and Tours has a crazy good deal on border runs: $35 round trip in an air conditioned bus.

Moose gets a whopping 12 miles per gallon so that would take about 16 gallons of gas. At ~$5.50/gallon that’s $88. Moose also doesn’t have air conditioning or a busload full of adventure.

10 folks started in the bus in Tamarindo at 7am and they picked me up in Huacas, which was mid-way between Tamarindo and where I live. The bus was full to the brim. We dropped 3 folks off at Liberia Airport on the way to Nicaragua. That’s where we had expected to pay this mysterious exit tax for Costa Rica. They put it in place a month or so ago, but they had no way to collect money for it at the border. The blogosphere, locals, expats, and travel agencies all had different opinions about whether it was being collected at all and where to actually pay it (not at the border). Our driver dropped the rest of us at Liberia Airport and gave each of us (back) our prepaid $10 for the tax. He suggested we go inside the airport to pay.

Inside, you can indeed pay an exit tax, but only the one when you leave Costa Rica by air. We drove around a bit to find what look to be the immigration police station, but it was closed on Sunday. We then took our chances and just drove to the border. Luck was with us and no one asked us to pay the tax. Afterward, I heard from several folks that they stopped trying to collect it after all the confusion at the border.

On the way up, folks were trading stories about how many days they were given to stay. The usual is 90 days. A few ex-pats that had been here awhile got 60 days. Evidently, it seems to depend on the border agent and maybe the moon, stars, time of the week, etc. One particular woman was very grumpy about the last time she went up and only got 60 days. She seemed to have a lot in general to complain about and it extended to Costa Rica, the US, Canada, her employer and several other things.

Normally on these runs, they simply go up, you cross into Nicaragua and then come right back. This particular woman was certain that the reason she only got 60 days was because last time she turned right around and so she refused to come back in anything less than two hours. Therefore, the entire bus had to spend two hours in Nicaragua.

Getting through the exit point in Costa Rica was pretty easy. It only took 20 minutes or so. Likewise, getting entry into Nicaragua was easy. It only took about 30 minutes. This is where I learned several tips for the next time.

Tip 1: Bring about $20 in $1 (USD) bills.
Things at the crossing and in Nicaragua are very cheap in general, including the fees. There are a lot of fees that cost $1-2 and change is a bit hard to come by. As an aside, Debbie read on the internet that you need to enter Nicaragua with at least $500 cash in USD. They only work with US dollars at the border and generally in Nicaragua. Well, at least she had the US dollar part right J I didn’t need $500 in $20’s. I did need $1 bills desperately.

I paid $1 when I first entered Nicaragua for an Alcadia Municipal “Contribucion Especial” (special contribution) ticket. Then $12 to get the entry stamp. On the way out, you have to pay the “Contribucion Especial” again.

With two hours before we left, we didn’t have time to catch a cab to Rivas (30 minutes away) or San Juan del Sur (45 minutes away), so Dusty and I just found a local restaurant – a shack really – and had a $1 beer. It was Toña, the Nicaraguan national beer. I had a good chance to watch a lot of the activity around the border and saw some fascinating things (more later).

Tip 2: Bring several custom forms with you or get them all at once.
Evidently Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and perhaps all of Central America uses the same customs form. At least, it is labeled as a Central American customs form. Also, evidently, when you first get into Nicaragua, you have to go to a special place to get these forms (a different line to stand in). Fortunately, there are tens of people there handing these forms out for a small fee – $1 USD. I would recommend buying 4 because you need them to leave Costa Rica, enter Nicaragua, leave Nicaragua, and enter Costa Rica. There are no tables in the customs area with stacks of these so you need to find a source. We forgot when we were entering Costa Rica again. Fortunately, we were able to get one from the agent (who didn’t look particularly pleased – and you definitely do not want to displease them).

Tip 3: Pick a good “dealer.”
This is Dusty’s term and he hit it spot on. It is a bit like going to Las Vegas and looking for a good dealer for blackjack. Yu want someone who is not grumpy, not a hard-ass, and ideally has a good sense of humor. The same seems to hold true of border agents. You’ll have several lines to choose from, so pick well. Afterward, I heard a story about one border agent in particular that the ex-pats seem to recognize and who consistently does not give 90 days. I don’t have his picture, sorry.

Our first two agents leaving CR and entering Nicaragua were great. They were both women and very friendly. Leaving Nicaragua, we had a guy who was friendly, but then started to ask questions. We were really only out of Costa Rica for two hours after all. They like folks staying and spending some money. Dusty talked to him about his home town and we sailed through. Our final one was a young guy who seemed serious but was very efficient and friendly. We got 90 days. Of course, we were also friendly.

Tip 4: Bring patience and a sense of humor – or at least a good book.
Some of the lines are long. Your passport gets look at 7-8 times. It’s hot and dusty. Our final line back into Costa Rica was 2+ hours. The two hours we stayed before returning evidently put us in the window of when all the tour buses from Nicaragua were coming through (about 1pm). Ideally, you’d want to get through before all of that. If you are stuck in a long line though, being grumpy probably won’t help you out much in the end. Remember pura vida? This is a good place to channel it.

Between my wait in Nicaragua having a beer and this two hour line, I actually noticed something quite remarkable. There is an entire ecosystem and economy built up around this need for ex-pats in both countries to head to the border and renew their entry stamp. As with many rich human ecosystems, you can see signs of inefficiency, but then also enterprising ways to work within the system. You can see innovation and creativity, as well as boredom and “just do what everyone else does” mentality.

As I mentioned, there are many folks handing out customs form for a tip (eliminating the need for you to stand in a line to get them). There are folks whom you can tip and get to the front of the line. It looks like the people at the front, only locals from what I saw, are willing to sell their place in line and then start over. There are folks selling cold drinks and mobile phone cards.

And of course, there is a whole bank of booths selling bus tickets. When you enter Costa Rica, you need to have proof that you will be exiting the country within 90 days. This can be an airline ticket (and that seems to have some advantages). Most ex-pats, though, buy a bus ticket (every 90 days) that they never use but that shows that they have a ticket out of Costa Rica. So, conveniently, if you forget your proof of departure, or are just someone who likes to do things last minute, you can easily buy one at the border.

One could look at all of this and suggest that it could be more efficient, better, and easier. I hear lots of complaints about the exit taxes, etc. From my perspective, I’m rather impressed. It’s got to be a hard life living in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in general given the average daily salary and unemployment. Enterprising people seem to be making some extra $ in this ecosystem. I don’t mind paying someone a tip for a form. It’s only a dollar and that seems to go a very long way in Nicaragua. I love seeing creative thinking emerge in ecosystems like this.

At the end of our long lines, we hopped back on the bus for the ride home. Most folks got 90 days. Our friend who was a bit grumpy only got 60 days again. Perhaps she didn’t pick a “good dealer.” Perhaps, it was her passport full of entry/exit stamps from Costa Rica (and Nicaragua). Maybe it was the fact that she had a bus ticket vs. a plane ticket to show proof of exit. Maybe she got that “one” border agent. It could have indeed been the moon, the time of the week, or any one of a number of reasons. She certainly seemed to be the exception.

For my part, I think it may go back to how you come across to people. Grumpiness, entitlement, continuous complaining can’t make a good case for getting anything. Costa Rica is the land of “pura vida.” Perhaps, the border agents look for that and welcome it back into Costa Rica and reward those who show it. We are guests here after all. Maybe a 60 day stamp is a good “teaching moment” – a reminder both of pura vida and how we should try to embrace it. At least, it seems as plausible as any other theory I’ve heard 🙂

Pura vida!