The Power of Power-ups: Motivating the Dinosaur Brain

For Christmas my wife, Beth, bought me a toothbrush that has taught me how I can be a better teacher. This is clearly no ordinary toothbrush. It’s the Oral-B Professional Deep Sweep + Smartguide Triaction 5000 Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush. It replaced my old dying Oral-B less impressively-named toothbrush. That one had a built in timer that signaled when I brushed for an entire two minutes by turning itself off for a second. I would be so proud of myself on those few occasions that I actually made it those 120 seconds that I would yell out to Beth “Adrian! Adrian!” like Rocky after he proved he wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood by going the distance with Apollo Creed (That movie ALWAYS makes me cry, by the way). Beth would never fail to give me a huge embrace declaring her eternal love. Those two minutes felt so long, and I was rarely motivated to stick it out. 

The new Oral-B 5000 also signals when I’ve completed two minutes of brushing, but in a different and much more effective way. It comes with a bluetooth-enabled LCD “Smartguide” that communicates with the brush to tell me how I’m doing. Bluetooth toothbrush? Bluetooth toothbrush. If I’m applying too much pressure, it gives me a crooked little frown (I have been applying too much pressure my entire life until now). But the two killer apps of the Smartguide are the quadrant timer and the achievements. The quadrant timer breaks the two minute session into four 30-second sessions on each of the four quadrants of my mouth. While two minutes seems daunting, to my dinosaur brain, four 30-second tasks seem totally doable. Then, once I finish, my Smartguide rewards me with a smiley face and four stars. The ultimate symbol of healthy dental habits and strong moral character.

I should be motivated to brush my teeth by the simple understanding that I am an adult and I should follow my dentist’s recommendation to brush for a full two minutes twice a day. But I’m really motivated by a stupid little animation on a wireless display. I admit that I have a dinosaur brain, but I don’t think I’m the only one. On her Amazon review, 65BAJA writes 

At first I thought the display was kinda gimmicky. Now I like it. It shows you if you are pressing too hard. My old tooth brush didn't have that. Then when you are done brushing, the display smiles at you. Who doesn't like a smile in the morning? lol.

This device is a life hack that gets our dinosaur brains to do what our human brains want, and when we’re asking our students build learning habits we should consider building in similar hacks in the classroom. One of my favorite teachers, Megan Ellis, does this in her English class in Palo Alto. She has fully gamified her classroom providing experience points, achievements, and power-ups (rewards that also provide power such as the right to skip a homework assignment). My colleague at York, Cammy Torgenrud provides her technology and information literacy students badges when they prove proficiency at a specific skill such as knowing how to write code using variables in Scratch. James Sanders, Duncan Winter, and Esther Wojcicki started to make the process of rewarding digital badges fun and easy. I need to follow these great teachers and do this more in my classes. 

Yes, they’re all pretty much meaningless, but these achievements are insanely motivating when we’re asking students to solve algorithmic problems and complete the routine tasks that support innovative project-based learning. Submitting that progress report blog post every week isn’t always inspiring passion-based work, but it has to be done, and if you give students a badge for submitting four on-time blog posts in a row, they will get competitive with each other and themselves and be much more likely to get it done than if you just threaten them with a bad grade if they don’t do it. 

As for that huge daunting project that seems too big to finish, be your students’ Smartguide and break the big project into small achievable deliverables. I build that into the proposal system for my students' 20time projects, but regular check-ins on deliverables can help segment large projects into manageable “next actions” as David Allen calls them in Getting Things Done. Sure your end goal is to produce that million-view video that inspires others not to instagram-and-drive, but you can only get there if you finish that three-page production schedule. 

If students miss their goals, not a huge deal. They don’t earn that badge, experience point, or power-up. Maybe their end of year grade will suffer a little bit too. That’s ok. We’re teaching students that they’re going to be expected to meet performance goals and if they don’t meet them, they miss out on certain rewards. And if they don’t learn from the experience, they will miss out on much more. What happens when I don’t go the distance with the Oral-B 5000? I don’t know yet and I don’t think my dinosaur brain will let me find out. 


The book The 20time Project will be released in paperback and Kindle on Amazon by the end of January.  Sign up here to get news about the book.