Irresistible Learning Experiences

New! Video Version! Scroll down for text.


Why not create learning experiences that are irresistible?

If the designers of Candy Crush Saga can do it, so can teachers,  instructional designers and edTech startups.

The following can help create such experiences:

  • Fun
  • Tangibility
  • Usefulness
  • The Flipped Classroom
  • Flow Theory and Gamification.


The following was true in 1964:

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game….”  – Mary Poppins

Indeed, people are capable of finding interest in most activities, no matter how boring. If we have no alternative, we can accept, surmount, and even find pleasure in otherwise very boring tasks.

Modernity, however, provides a growing number of alternatives to avoid boredom such as social networks, video games and the local bar’s happy hours. This has decreased people’s tolerance to tedious activities.

Boredom is becoming a mere annoying side effect of having no wi-fi.

The consequence in the classroom is that relative to twitter/facebook/funny cat videos, many activities that were previously painful yet tolerable have now become unacceptably boring.


Modernity has rendered dull lectures intolerable.

There is no reason to lose hope though, for students can still be seduced by fun learning activities such as: listening to an interesting person, collaborating, competing, playing a game, playing a role and, more generally, interacting and being sociable.

Learning activities that involve these components can be quite hard to resist.


“Nothing can be both boring and truly important”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I am convinced that humans have pretty sophisticated bullshit detectors that help us pay attention to what is useful and ignore what is useless.

The reason (most) people hate calculus is not because it is boring, but because (for most) it is useless.

Learning experiences must provide useful outcomes; otherwise the human bullshit detector will ring, as a warning that you are doing something useless.

If you are a teacher, and you want to avoid the bullshit detector to ring , your job is to involve the learner in an activity that involves  creating something tangible, which  for simplification I define as something that can be shown to other people. For example,  in an English Writing class, a showable product would be a public blog post.

To elicit an even higher level of engagement and interest, learners must be involved in creating something that aligns with their specific goals and needs. For example, in the same English Writing class, a job-seeking student would have to actually create the cover letters and resume for a coveted job.

I believe that learning experiences that combine both tangibility and usefulness are very hard to resist.


“The person who learns the most during a lecture is, predictably, the lecturer”

The basic Flipped Classroom model states that a classroom is a place for project-based learning, feedback,and collaboration, whilst the lecture-watching is done at home.

I believe that the potential of the Flipped Classroom goes far beyond that.

I believe that content production, content delivery, and progress assessment shouldn’t be the exclusive privilege of teachers and instructional designers.

Indeed, it is desirable for students to participate in all three, for these activities are first-class learning experiences that make the student grow intellectually and become responsible in a way that I believe is… irresistible. 

How can a learner resist making her best effort when the performance of her peers is in her hands?


“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Videogame designers, lords and masters of user motivation and engagement, can teach instructional designers a great deal about creating irresistible learning experiences.

Indeed, many of the mechanics of videogames can be explained and applied thanks to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the growing corpus of the field of gamification.

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory presents a very convincing description of the mechanics of the state of flow, a state of focus where boredom is nonexistent and improvement is an imperative.

Have you ever watched Roger Federer or Michael Jordan play a final? They were not thinking about their taxes, trust me. They were in a state of flow. Same with a kid obsessed with World of Warcraft.

The state of flow is a place of focus, challenge, and motivation. A place of powerful learning, too.

Gamification is an extraordinarily powerful tool for inducing such state. If used correctly, it can help instructional designers create architectures that are favorable to a super-sweet spot between boredom and anxiety that is just challenging enough to be… (you guessed it…) irresistible.