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. 

20% Project: "What if I'm deaf for a week?"

I want to be able to see what it’s like not to hear or say anything and still be able to communicate with everyone. I would also like to share what that’s like with my friends and classmates. I want to know what the challenges are and how people who are deaf take on those challenges on a daily basis.
Thus begins Reinel's 20% project proposal. Her plan is to spend a week wearing a headset that emits white noise so that she will be effectively deaf. She plans to create a short film that will document the experience and help spread awareness of the hearing impaired community. You can follow her progress at her 20% Project Blog at Please leave an encouraging comment!

What is makinigatmaintindihan you ask? So did I. Then she showed this supposed Google Certified Teacher the Google Translate page.
Here's a taste of how her week will look ... and sound. 

20% Project: "I want to build a foundry."

During The Bad Idea Factory one of my students enthusiastically announced that he wanted to build a foundry. Cue visions of 19th Century Manchester with large crucibles pouring extremely orange glowing metal into a form shooting sparks everywhere. You know, this.
"That sounds dangerous ... and fun," I replied. "Do you know anything about molding metal?"


"Do you know anyone who knows anything about molding metal?"


"OK, well if you're going to take this on, we're going to need to find someone who can help."

"Can't we just figure it out from the internet?"

"Maybe, but I think we're going to need some guidance."

From my experience last year, I decided that a mentorship element would definitely help my students find more success in their 20% projects, so I'm now making it a requirement. The mentor's role wouldn't be a huge time commitment. They would perhaps have a short meeting to go over the proposal and then offer guidance through email, and I'm hoping the mentors would keep up with and comment on their 20% blogs.
Then I remembered that I was in fact friends with a couple who designed their own foundry. Paxton and Marne Mobley of Paxton Fine Buckles & Jewelry Design make some of the most beautiful silver buckles money can buy. I sent Pax an email asking if he'd be willing to mentor these students, and he immediately agreed to give them a tour of the foundry they built in their garage and to mentor them throughout the year. Thank you, Paxton and Marne!

A letter to my students and parents about the 20% Project

Dear Students and Parents of the York School 10th Grade Class,

I hope you all had an adventurous and energizing summer. I wanted to write to introduce myself and let you know a little bit about one of the unusual projects we’ll be taking on this year in English III.

In 2011 we began The 20% Project in English III. This is a major project-based-learning assignment that spans the entire school year and encourages students to pursue a creative interest they would otherwise not experience in our academic program at York.

Before I get into the details of the project, I want to explain why we’re asking students to participate in this activity. For over 20 years a trend in education has been gaining momentum that suggests the role of the teacher ought to shift away from an industrial model where the teacher stands in the front of the classroom to dispense knowledge through lectures, and the students sit to consume the information. Rather than being the “sage on the stage” as some pedagogical experts maintain, teachers increasingly ought to play the role of the “guide on the side.” In this role, the students play a much more active role in how the content and knowledge is acquired. In this model, teachers provide resources, ask questions, and suggest projects for students to explore their content. While I will play the “sage on the stage” role in much of this English class, the 20% project is one place where I will be the “guide on the side.” Put simply, this is a student-centered project rather than a teacher-centered project.

Another crucial element in designing this project is the book

Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us

by Daniel Pink

. I can’t recommend this book enough. You can get a taste of it by watching this twenty minute video in which he argues for providing employees more autonomy in business. The book explains why the same principles apply to education.

How does the 20% Project Work?


At the beginning of the year, students will begin brainstorming ideas for a project proposal. Students may work alone, but I encourage them to work in small teams, no larger than four students. While brainstorming, I will encourage students to make the project “Product Focused.” At the end of the year I want them to have made something that is a completed product. It could be a physical product like a graphic novel or a balloon that takes photos from the stratosphere. It could be an organization such as the tutoring pool Josh Pompan started for his 20% project. It could also be a digital project like a short film or video game. My point here is that I want to quickly move from the idea phase of this project to the producing phase.


Once the team has an idea of what project they want to pursue, they begin writing the proposal. This is how the team will “pitch” the project to me and the rest of the class. In this proposal, students will answer the following questions.

  • What is your project?
  • Who will work with you on this project?
  • Who is the audience / user base / client base for this project?
  • Why is this project worthwhile?
  • What do you expect to learn from this project?
  • What PRODUCT will you have to show at the end of the year?
  • What sort of expenses will be involved in your project and how will you cover them?
  • What sort of equipment will you need and where will you get it?
  • What is your timeline for completing (or launching) your project?

The Blog

Each cycle every member of every team is required to write a public blog post where students discuss their progress. They write about what happened over the past cycle, what they learned, what challenges they faced, and what they anticipate in the future. Each blog post must be at least 150 words written in Standard American English and contain a related image that is posted without infringing on anyone's copyright. Students will fill out a simple form that links to their post.


I would like to see each team find an adult mentor who can help guide and inspire it. I hope parents will play a role in finding an appropriate mentor for this project. The mentor will serve to offer advice, provide informal leadership, and follow the progress blogs.

20% Days

Throughout the school year, students will have one day a cycle to work on their projects. If students need to be off-campus to work on their projects, they are welcome to do that on weekends or afternoons and use the scheduled 20% time as a productive tutorial period, meeting period, or writing period.

The Final Presentation

At the end of the year, each team will give a five-minute presentation to students, teachers, and community members where they will show off their work. This will be carefully written, choreographed, and rehearsed to produce the best presentation they’ve ever given. These TED-style presentations will be delivered and recorded in the Theater. Here is a two minute video of highlights from last year’s presentations.  


Many students and parents understandably ask me about how I’m going to grade the 20% project. I try to de-emphasize the grade because extrinsic motivators like grades tend to discourage the innovation and creativity I’m looking for in this project. Read


for more on this. I want them to be inspired by the project itself, not by the grade they’re going to get on it.

That said, I am going to assess students on the algorithmic (objective) elements of the project. A significant portion of their English grade will be dependent on the following elements with rubrics.

  • The Proposal (Is the proposal on-time, and does it address the required questions appropriately?)
  • The Blog (Does the post meet the required length, address the required topic, and submitted to the form on-time? Do you post regularly?)
  • The Product (Did you successfully move from idea phase to production phase, and do you have something to show at the end of the year?)
  • Productivity (Are you spending your 20% time by actively and passionately working on your project? If not, we need to quickly adjust the project so you are working on something that is intrinsically motivating. This is less objective, but if I see students not being productive, I will intervene.)
  • Final Presentation (Does your presentation meet all of the required elements?)

What if my project is a failure?

In this class there is a place for perfection. Vocab quizzes and sentence mechanics come to mind. The 20% Project is no such place.

The world’s best entrepreneurs embrace failure.

Read Wired Magazine’s issue on the topic of “failure.”

The only truly failed project is the one that doesn’t get done. I want students to strive to show off a successful product at the end of the year, but I don’t want the quest for perfection to lead to an incomplete project. I want students to follow the advice plastered on the wall of Facebook’s headquarters.

This policy doesn't work in all work-related environments. I wouldn't want to see this poster in the dentist's office or the parachute packing assembly line. But for creative projects where we're trying to innovate, I find this idea compelling. For more on this topic read

The Done Manifesto


If you feel that your project is a failure, I want to hear about it. What did you learn about it? Think about your science fair project. If your hypothesis was wrong, was your project a failure? Watch Kathryn Schultz’s TED Talk: “On Being Wrong.”

Don’t strive for failure, but don’t be afraid of it either!

I am very excited about all of the different things we’re going to be doing this year in English class, including the Sophomore Speeches and more traditional English-type elements like reading great literature, writing literary analyses, and composing formal poetry. But I can’t wait to be amazed, surprised, and inspired by the innovative projects this year’s sophomores will produce in the 20% Project. If you have any questions about anything, don’t hesitate to email me at



Kevin Brookhouser

Do badge systems undermine motivation in the classroom?

The logo from
Could offering a students badges for doing great work actually discourage performance? Perhaps. At our school we're looking at adopting a badge system to distribute when students demonstrate various skills particularly in our technology and information literacy class. For former scouts, the badge system will be nothing new. Learn a skill, earn a badge. I recently posted on my PLC a request to find a resource that offered digital badges we could use. James Sanders replied that he is working on a site that will provide just that at Awesome!

One teacher brought up an informed and thoughtful question regarding badges, which I thought I would explore here. He asks: 

For this upcoming school year some teachers and I are introducing badges and other gamelike features into the online community that our students work in. One of the teachers has raised concerns that badges will stifle the students'  intrinsic motivation, that students will focus more on getting badges than the work they're doing and that this extrinsic motivation will ultimately have negative consequences. But on the other hand, I see some of the winners from this year's DML competition and it seems all good.
What do you all think?
Here is a thoughtful post by Chris Sloan that raises the question more deeply. 

If you read this blog, you'll understand how well his concerns align with my approach to motivation and learning. Isn't a badge just a carrot, and don't carrots actually undermine motivation? The truth is, it depends on the kind of work we want to get from our students.

Once again, I'll refer to Daniel Pink's work, this time an article from The Harvard Business Review, "A Radical Prescription for Sales." In it he addresses many of the concepts he explained in Drive. He divides tasks into two categories: algorithmic and heuristic.
... The effectiveness of motivators varies with the task. In particular, they have discovered that contingent rewards—I call them “if then” rewards, as in “If you do this, then you get that”—work well with routine tasks social scientists dub “algorithmic.” Think stuffing envelopes quickly or turning the same screw the same way on an assembly line. The promise of a reward, especially cash, excites our attention, and we focus narrowly on getting the job done.
However, those same if-then rewards turn out to be far less effective for complex, creative, conceptual endeavors—what psychologists call “heuristic” work. Think inventing a new product or working with a client to tackle a problem neither of you has confronted before. For those projects, you need a broader perspective, which, research shows, can be inhibited by if-then rewards.
Badges are indeed if-then rewards, therefore perhaps we should only apply them to algorithmic tasks. Of course we're not not asking our students to stuff envelopes or work on an assembly line. I hope. However, I think some skills we want our students to acquire fit more in the algorithmic side of the spectrum. For example, I want my students to be able to identify and fix a comma splice. There is only one way to identify a comma splice and only three ways to fix them. This mechanic skill is as algorithmic as it gets. Another example in the English classroom would be metric verse. Identifying and composing metric verse is also algorithmic. Therefore, I think it would be entirely appropriate (and awesome) to have a "Comma Splice Assassin" badge and a "Metric Verse Master" badge. 
The badges that would undermine motivation, if Daniel Pink is right, are the badges that reward heuristic work, like composing a sentence that conveys a complex idea clearly or composing a sonnet that reveals insight into a subtle relationship. A "creative kid" badge would fail. A really bad way to get kids to be innovative is to tell them to be innovative. A worse way would be to promise them an innovative patch. Creativity and innovation provide their own rewards. We teachers need to create an environment where students are motivated to be innovative, and for that we must provide autonomy, mastery, and purpose. See the video below.

Am I correct in labeling the acquisition of concrete skills such as sentence mechanics, vocabulary, arithmetic, and taxonomy as algorithmic? Is there a spectrum with algorithmic on one side and heuristic on the other? If so, how do our different academic goals fit within this spectrum?