Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Getting It Right

There’s an interesting little experiment you can do. If you have a classroom of kids and you give them a bunch of tasks they can work on of varying difficulty, the kids will pick the tasks that are just outside their level, that stretch them to do a little bit more. (This is, of course, if they aren’t getting graded on this. If they’re getting graded, they’ll always pick the easy ones.)

When I first heard about this experiment, I just assumed it was because they were good kids. But now I think there’s a different explanation. It’s because doing this is fun.

Working on something that’s too easy for you isn’t enjoyable, it’s just mindless. (There’s a reason few people play 50K Racewalker.) But doing something that’s too hard for you isn’t fun either. It’s just like trying to run through a wall: you’re not going to succeed and you’re not going to learn much from it. So, like Goldilocks, the kids pick the task that’s just right.

But it’s not simply by default either. There’s something actively enjoyable in itself about learning to achieve more. (I’ve come to call this the “Kipper effect”, after the novel Kipper’s Game which revolves around this idea.) There’s a definite high to achievement, the rush of accomplishment, just as there’s a corresponding low when you fail.

I’m looking for more research on this idea — and I’d be very grateful if anyone could point me to it. What kinds of things trigger the Kipper effect? Does it wear off? etc.

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October 13, 2006


You should definitely read “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which talks about the state of flow - Zen-like state which occurs when balance is found between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer.

posted by Nikita Zhuk on October 13, 2006 #

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” — Robert Browning

posted by Seth Finkelstein on October 13, 2006 #

“A man’s life is interesting primarily when he has failed—I well know. For it is a sign that he has tried to surpass himself.” - Georges Clemenceau

posted by Ajay on October 13, 2006 #

Kathy Sierra talks about this a lot, only she focuses mostly on the context of software users instead of students. But she’s done a lot of reading and writing about keeping people interested by keeping things slightly challenging. So she could probably recommend some good research on the topic.

posted by Scott Reynen on October 14, 2006 #

If you would hit the mark, you must aim a bit above it.

posted by anonymous on October 14, 2006 #

Alan Kay wrote that he likes to challenge kids to ‘write (type?)’ because it’s bit difficult thing to do. He wrote he basically sets that his basic setting (for Dynabook/Squeak) is - to challenge’ kids to do something bit more difficult or we humans are not innately equipped to do fluently or elegantly.

So there might be some papers or references he and his people (SmallTalkers,Squeakers?) can suggest - how to set hoops or hardles in front of kids - they’ve been doing this for decades…they also (almost?) say kids have more talents in science and math than parents or teachers. [I am not very clear about how they put these two different things in one.]

As you may know he is basically in the same camp? as Seymour Papert, who takes bit more looser articulations about kids’ talents or potentials and how our regular education systems are not matching. (and wasting so many kids…)

I now think those IA people (Intelligence Augmentation) should have written a lot more about education settings and kids - in the modern world. They could have written a lot more as general analysis, findings, and criticisms or suggestions - about education. That could have cleared up many issues. By merely writing or talking as computer scientists, they kind of really didn’t fill the lines they had to fill. There is still some time left - while they are alive - but I am not sure how much they’d come to succeed on popularizing their ideals and dreams - and softwares (and hardwares?).

On a different note, there is an very old Stanford book, History of Education, written by Cubberley? might be an interesing reference book to have around for your - seems - interest in education system’s settings. Recently someone wrote a book about that book, but I haven’t checked up.

Michael Oakeshott?’s book titled ‘On Human Conduct’ has - pp350 or so around? (there are different editions probably) - a brief paragraphs about the origins of modern educations. (It’s for ‘Nations’ to build meritocracies…to beat each other up…)

And I’m still probably very clueless about the history of ‘Universities’ - and ‘kids’ in the West. When peer pressure thing came in, when drinking and drugs became common, ‘who’ started to sell those things to kids, - or kids themselves started by themselves(because they are so happy being away from suburbs and parents?).

posted by a.kusaka on October 15, 2006 #

Yeah, Aaron, you should definitely check out Flow, the book Nikita recommended.

You’ll learn more about the so-called Kipper Effect. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, it’s one of the core components of flow — you need to be stretched just outside of your comfort zone.

posted by Altay on October 18, 2006 #

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