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!

Our First Unschooling “Period”

Aidan and Vie are motoring on their unschooling fronts as part of our new adventure. It’s been challenging for all of us in a few areas as we try to find an unschooling rhythm. It’s also been rewarding to see the young adults start to do some very interesting things.

There are so many things to write about as we get going. Here I think I’ll focus more on what the kids are doing. There are some higher level themes we are trying to engender, but I’ll go more deeply into those later.

I’m fortunate that I made my (over)scheduling mistake early and was able to correct it. Aidan and Vie have now mostly found their schedules and are getting into their respective rhythms. Aidan needs a little more structure so I developed a spreadsheet for him to track his unschooling hours, reading hours and technology use. I‘m secretly hoping he likes using Excel enough to use it for more planning activities as a tool.

Our primary goal for this first “period” (aka semester, quarter, etc.) of unschooling is really building confidence, engagement, and passion for learning more than mastery of any particular thing. We don’t think that mastery can come easily without the former. We are also using this first period to get the young adults familiar with some basic digital tools like Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher and even some more specific ones.

Toward that end, Vie and Aidan both chose two projects to work on based on their interests. We added in some dedicated reading time and also learning Spanish. Learning Spanish was the one thing we asked them to add as a project because we’d like to get them starting to speak the native language here soon. We got a few grumbles from them over Spanish but they understood the importance and are working with it.

As I describe the projects Aidan and Vie are working on, you’ll see a gaming, or “gamification” theme influencing them. This is intentional on our part. I’ll speak more about this in another post soon, but gaming is a great way to foster engagement and really understand the core aspects of what they are learning – and they are both very interested in gaming.

Aidan chose two cooking related projects. He loves cooking, cooking shows, and trying new foods. We actually call him “Chef Aidan.” His first project is to create a cookbook of recipes that he’s created on an online site like This is a big project that will require several big steps and a lot of learning about foods and cooking. His first step in this project is to get to know all about herbs and spices. As part of this, he is creating 20 flash cards that each describe one herb or spice. Here’s an example.

spice flash card

He’s nearly finished laying out all of the flash cards in Publisher and is working on tying them to the cuisines that they are used inn (the flags on the cards). Deb wants to get them printed and see if Aidan can sell them!

In the process of doing these flash cards, I gave Aidan a side “quest” of writing a description of the difference between herbs and spices such that it would definitively categorize something into one or the other (or not applicable). In other words, nothing would end up being both or somewhere in the middle. I can’t immediately do this, mind you. Aidan is working on it, but he started off with “something off the top of his head” he says: “hydration”. It was pretty brilliant. I’ve been throwing different spices and herbs at that one word and so far it is working pretty well to distinguish the two (notwithstanding the fact that one “could” dry herbs).

Step 2 in Aidan’s first project is to start cooking and getting to know some basic techniques and recipes. Clearly, this is a lifelong project, but we’ll just start cooking a variety of things in Aidan’s “test kitchen” so that he can begin to try some of his own creations.

As his final step, he’ll create and write up 10 recipes. He’ll need to perfect them in order to actually write up the recipe so this will get him very familiar with prototyping and iteration – part of a good design thinking process. We’re hoping that he can write up one of the recipes in Spanish to help compliment his learning of the language. Look forward to some updates, and fun stories, around “Chef Aidan’s” recipe project. I understand he wants to create “sour gummies” as one recipe. That will of course involve chemistry!

Aidan’s second project, which he wants to start after his first one is complete, is very cool. It is a baking card game. It is similar to some of the more popular thematic card games like Munchkin. He’s thought a bit about the game mechanics and play as part of his prep work. It will not only help teach players baking concepts, including chemistry, but it will also be a lot of fun to play. More importantly, combining a constructivist (i.e., “making”) approach to learning with gamification principles, we expect that Aidan will learn a ton about how to learn in general.

If Aidan is our chef, Vie is our artist. Vie already has quite a following on Deviant Art. It was natural that one of the projects would involve digital art, and so it does. Vie is already very proficient with indirect digital drawing tools such as Wacom tablets, where you look at the screen while drawing on a small pad with a digital pen. Vie is now mastering direct digital drawing – drawing directly on the screen (of a tablet, for example).

Vie’s first project is to learn 3 different programs for digital drawing and then compare the three of them, possibly in a video format. Vie is already very gifted at drawing and is a master at SAI, a digital paint tool used in a lot of fan-based anime art. For some reason that “product loyalty” means that learning Adobe Photoshop is out. However, Adobe Illustrator is one of the chosen ones. Illustrator is a vector based (drawing) product vs. a raster based (painting) tool so that should provide some new skills and learnings. It may be useful in the second project as well. Vie is still working out what the other two tools will be. One might be a 3D tool such as Maya, which is a high-end tool for creating 3D animated characters. You’ve likely seen its results in most recent animated films.

These are all professional art and design tools, and they all have “professional” price tags. Vie is using the one month free trial period most have for this project and to see if they might be of future interest. Meanwhile, I’m trying to see how an “unschooler” can qualify for an educational discount given all of the institutional verification forms. Who said it would be easy J ?

Vie’s final result (“deliverable”) for this project will be the same character image drawn, painted, or rendered in 3 different programs, highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and differences of each tool. It should be pretty awesome to see and we are hoping that vie does a simultaneous “speed painting” video of the three for YouTube. We haven’t seen that sort of comparison before.

This brings us to Vie’s second project. It is still getting defined but Vie is trying to bring together several interests, both near term and long term (i.e., career). Vie is very interested in being a professional game videographer, game tester or game designer. A “game videographer” (my term) is someone that creates videos showing how to play aspects of a particular game and then puts them on YouTube to make money. (It was a new one for me too.)

There are really 3-4 projects wrapped up here and we are working to separate them a bit so we can have a clear, focused project with some sort of deliverable. Vie is leaning toward learning how to make a video, in this case of someone showing how to play a sequence in a game. Vie is already working on learning video screen capture tools (TinyTake or Camtasia), audio tools for voice-overs (Audacity), and video editing tools. For now we are using Microsoft Movie Maker but if this interest grows, as I suspect it will, then we will move to Adobe Premiere – and that is a serious professional tool that will be great to learn early.

There is a lot of tool learning, and consequent frustration, going on right now. That is expected. Most of us who use these tools have gone through it too. I expect that this project will be more about learning the tools. I hope that Vie can then develop some deeper learning about the gaming industry in the next several projects. Those projects will likely involve things like gamification, coding, testing, designing, interviewing gaming professionals, and project management. An exciting possibility is that there are now online certifications you can get in gamification and Vie may pursue one. More on that soon.

On top of these projects, I am still sending Aidan and Vie links to TED talks, articles and resources that are relevant to what they are doing in order to get their juices flowing more. One which I’ll talk about more in a future post is the first 18 minutes of a Harvard Law School course on philosophy. It is surprisingly accessible and makes you think.

While I am still trying to figure out how to bring math more into the mix, these projects all involve reading, research, writing, problem solving, critical thinking, project management, and design skills above and beyond the specific subject matter knowledge and tool skills inherent in each project. Vie and Aidan are getting very digitally literate. Most importantly, they seem to be enjoying their projects and learning in general so far. And for us that is a key metric of success for this first “period” of unschooling.

The Paper Quest

In our young adults’ first unschooling project, they collaborated to create an amazing 28 page multimedia paper. Deb and I were excited, surprised and very, very proud of them. We were also really excited to see that our first unschooling “experiment” worked. That was important because it is a big part of our new adventure. The project revealed the power of passion and motivation. Here’s the story. I hope it is as inspirational to some of you as it is to Deb and me.

As I noted briefly in Unschooling Begins, we actually ended up starting the unschooling with a “quest.” In gaming terms, this is often a side activity to the main game plot in Role-Playing Games. Quests involve the players performing some task or accomplishing some goal, usually for reward.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest.” The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. That was a great spark to start with.

For some “back story” context, Aidan hasn’t generally been excited about writing at all. When we’ve helped Aidan with papers in the past, it was really tough pulling out more than a sentence or two. He seemed to be pretty typical of students his age. Vie enjoys creative writing, but doesn’t enjoy writing “school” papers. Notwithstanding that, both Aidan and Vie had a very good understanding of the basic components of a good paper and the steps to take to get there (rough draft, review, revisions, etc.).

Vie and Aidan worked on the paper for about 6 days, a few hours each day. This work included playing and watching games to get details, identifying details they wanted to talk about and then organizing these into larger themes, arranging the themes into an ordered outline using card sorting, writing a rough draft, gathering images and audio samples for the final paper, revising their content several times, and assembling everything into the final paper.

As an active and passive observer in all of this, I saw a number of interesting and noteworthy things. First off, their observation skills were beyond what I expected. They both knew the games pretty well. I suggested in addition to playing that they watch someone play. I humbly volunteered to play Diablo III while they watched J. For about 90 minutes they watched, commented, discussed, debated, and critiqued both the game and how I played it. They made some very shrewd and unexpected observations, such as noting that there is a definite pattern in Diablo III when a “rare” (mini-boss) monster appears. You can generally identify it by the type and cluster of “minions” it has before you even see it. It was pretty subtle. Their attention to detail was amazing; it would give a good field researcher a run for their money.

Another heartening thing was their focus. Several times in several of the days, they would work for 2-4 hours straight, writing, editing, formatting, capturing images, etc. I was there in case they needed help (which they rarely did), but they were driving their own focus. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized they were working like I (and many) do when I am in “flow.” I think this is important so here’s a brief description:

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand (Wikipedia, from Csikszentmihalyi).

This is the state we all strive to be in on a good day at work. Even in the best circumstances in school, I don’t think we could see this. Inevitably there are class distractions and certainly more limited periods of time to actually work on something. There were of course some occasions where they needed a little motivation to get started or they themselves got distracted, etc., but the fact that I was even able to see this is pretty surprising – at least to me. And when distractions came up, we just took a break and picked it up later. They drove their schedule.

One of the more surprising things to me was seeing them collaborate so well. They wanted to work together from the beginning. I was hesitant, but open to it. I think collaboration is an essential skill for kids to learn, which is why I like project-based learning. Like most siblings, though, they have their share of arguments, periods of bossiness, etc. I wasn’t sure if the two of them could really collaborate well. I was definitively shown that they could and they could do it well. Vie was more of the driver in the project but they both worked together on every part of the paper writing experience. And, testimony to good collaboration, the final result was stronger than either one would have been able to do alone.

Finally, they were really developing their critical thinking skills. Coincidentally, I, and then all of us, just watched the excellent documentary Race to Nowhere. It is an emotionally powerful look at what the volumes of homework students are now being assigned are doing to them. I highly recommend taking a look if you are a parent. One outcome the film pointed out was that because students are so over-tested, they are studying and memorizing for the test, only to immediately drop that “data” afterward. They are not learning how to learn and they are not developing critical thinking skills – two skills that are essential when confronted by novel problems. This is at the core of creativity and innovation.

When students study for tests, they may pass the test, but they likely won’t figure out how to solve the problem. As a pre-med at Stanford many years ago, I sadly saw this there as well. In a particularly tough Physics class after a test where I did poorly, the TA told me I as taking the test “wrong.” I needed to memorize more formulas and just write down all of the ones that applied so I could get partial credit. We weren’t really developing the skill to solve problems. I found it disillusioning that if I was a “real” physicist, or doctor, and could not remember a formula, I could look it up. But, if I didn’t know how to solve a problem, then I am at a loss in my field. Many pre-med classes taught you indirectly how to study for the tests through memorization primarily. The Race to Nowhere, showed the same exact behaviors, only now penetrating high school, middle school, and even grammar school.

We’ve always tried to teach the young adults that “I don’t know” is ok and that we often don’t know something. When we don’t, we go figure it out. We try different approaches until we get what we want. The internet makes this a bit easier as there are experts and “how to” videos everywhere, but the principle is the same. In the case of this quest, there was no test and no right answer. There was no model of what a good result looked like. They found no example papers on the Internet (not that they looked or wanted to). I wanted to see them create something they were proud of. They did.

To give you just a little flavor of what they did, here’s a short excerpt from Aidan and Vie’s paper that shows some of their analysis and how they crafted it:

Along with many things, the gaming styles are different. Borderlands being a first person view, and Diablo being third person. Each having their own advantages and disadvantages. Such as Borderlands with first person view

DIABLO borderlands

you are not able to see all around you and can’t see out of the line of sight straight forward. This can be an advantage sometimes, since you are able to aim accurately, especially with a scope.


There are also some disadvantages though, for example enemies can sneak up on you easier when out of your line of sight. In Diablo however, you can see most of your surroundings and can see all directions. Your line of sight is a lot wider…

We saw a lot of potential in this “quest” for learning across multiple dimensions, but as I reflect on the kinds of skills they learned, I see several nuanced ones I didn’t initially appreciate. If I break the skills into two groups based on what we expected they would get out of this activity and what we discovered that they additionally got out of it, I get the following:


  • Expository writing
  • Research
  • Collaboration
  • Proficiency with Microsoft Word
  • Writing process
  • Critical thinking
  • Value of written communication


  • Observation
  • Finding “flow”
  • Forming and defending an opinion
  • Planning and organization
  • Time management
  • Design tools (e.g. card sorting

And since every activity is a learning experience, here’s what I learned in the process:

  • I really had to resist trying to have them fix every grammar issue. I focused on key principles and issues and left the rest for other papers. This could have easily become exhaustive and I did not want to lose their energy. I’m hoping it was the right call. It felt right.
  • I had no comparable bar to gauge their writing, since I had no other students to compare them to. I had to resist using my own bar. I can get really anal with some things. Vie and Aidan are still only 13 and 11.
  • I had to appreciate and celebrate their improvement and success, which was incredible. It was hard for me. I had to step out of my Microsoft (or in fairness, tech industry) mindset of focusing on the flaws.
  • I had to let them make mistakes, and watch it happen. Intellectually, I knew this was a good way to learn and wanted to engender it. It was just tough sometimes when I knew the path wouldn’t work out and I wanted to save them time.
  • On that note, I had to ignore time. I thought they could do it in a week. They could have if we didn’t take time for other fun things. But, this was my schedule, not theirs. I needed to remember what I tell them a lot: “do it well, not just quickly.”
  • And while it is something I firmly believe, it was reinforced again and again in this project: “kids” can do a lot more on their own than we (adults) tend to think they can.

One of the things I am excited about with unschooling is that I expect to learn a lot too. We don’t have much experience here. We’ve read a lot, but there is no “manual” of how to do this. Every learner is different. We certainly won’t get everything right. We’ll make mistakes. Then, we’ll iterate and make them better. It’s just like real world problem solving. And if Vie and Aidan see us making mistakes and figuring things out as we help guide them on this journey, then hopefully they’ll have a model that this approach is not only “ok”, but that it works.