Sunday / May 19

Best Practices Not Encouraged by Our Cover-Test-Sort Instructional System

This blog is the second in a three-part series by Bob Sornson. Click to read Part 1: What Digital Game Designers Know About Assessment and Instructional Design.

Our curriculum-driven educational model was well designed for the efficient delivery of instruction in a world in which most students were not expected to finish high school, become great readers or mathematicians, or consider higher education. Schools were intended to teach a few basic skills and sort out a small percentage of students who would go on for advanced learning.

More than 150 years ago, Horace Mann chose the Prussian educational model for the first public schools in Massachusetts, and this model became the standard for most American and European school systems. A standard curriculum was devised for each grade level, intended to give students an overview of important reading, writing, civics, and mathematics instruction. Large numbers of successful readers, mathematicians, and life-long learners were not needed by society at that time. Learning success for all was not a consideration in the design of this system of teaching and learning.

During the 1800s, most students went to school for only a few years, often inconsistently if needed for work at home or on the farm. It was enough. A standard curriculum informed teachers as to what to cover, and in the early 1900s the model was tweaked to include assessments to help choose which students might be allowed to continue in school.

A standard curriculum. One-size-fits-all coverage. Summative testing at the end of a unit or school year. Giving grades to sort students into levels of success. These were the basic design factors in our cover-test-sort instructional model, used in a time when our society needed only a few good readers, mathematicians, and life-long learners. We continue to use this same model in most schools today.

But today this same model is failing and damaging many of our children. Common Core State Standards or some other list of content standards defines what will be “covered” in each grade or subject. National assessments and a plethora of local summative assessment systems are used to measure learning after the fact. We grade students. We grade teachers. And we race forward through the delivery of so much content that the joy of learning is lost on most students and many teachers.

Digital game designers and digital learning designers don’t follow those same rules. Instead they have chosen to take advantage of the research on best instructional practices which keep each learner engaged and learning optimally. The practices they use apply to learners in any context, but the cover-test-sort educational model to which most schools unconsciously cling do not allow teachers to take advantage of many of the best ideas and practices for good teaching and learning.

Instructional zone

Children learn best when given instruction that is just challenging enough but never so hard that students frustrate and disengage from learning. In early reading we know that students are more motivated, spend more time on-task, behave better and learn more when they are given reading tasks in which they already know 93 to 97% of the sight words. Above 97% is considered the independent reading zone. Below 93% is the frustration zone, in which students quickly disengage from effort and learning.

Game designers pay exquisite attention to the level of challenge and success. Standard instruction using grade level materials for all students in the same time and same way ignores the need for on-going attention to instructional level and match.

Tiered learning

Some skills need to be learned well before a student can be successful at higher levels of learning. Gamers get it, and they design tiers of learning. Each tier helps the learner to understand and use the skills needed to get to the next level. No one gets a “C”. Instead you get all the time you need to develop real skills you know how to use.

Rigid pacing guides and one-size-fits-all scripted learning programs make it impossible for teachers to give students the time needed to fully learn the skills at one tier before they are moved along to the next.

Trial and error

Game players learn to try stuff and see what works. They experiment, reflect, form a hypothesis, visualize an action plan, try something new, and repeat the process. This feedback loop is quick and consistent.  Mistakes are part of the action, and fun because there is an overall sense of success and progress.

In standard school instruction students are encouraged to avoid mistakes. Mistakes give you poor grades, and grades become the goal rather than learning. In recent decades we’ve taken on so much content that school has become a race to cover the standards. Unfortunately coverage is not the same as learning. Students practice memorizing facts and formulas that can be regurgitated on tests so they get the grades.

Intrinsic motivation

Gamers want to take on challenges, solve problems, collaborate, and persist. Gamers are intrinsically motivated to learn more skills and get better at the game. Contrast that with students in many classrooms who want to do as little as possible to get a good grade, as judged by someone else, when working on obscure and personally meaningless learning objectives.

Formative assessment

Game designers do not use end of unit assessments. No grades are given. Instead they use exquisite assessment algorithms to embed formative assessment into every moment of the game. The level of difficulty is increased only when the student is ready for the challenge, as demonstrated by her level of play. Every moment of play is used as part of the formative assessment process to determine whether to present new challenges or take the player to the next level. Designers would not consider information about how a student was doing last week, last month, or last year as relevant to the process of keeping the student engaged and learning.

Quality formative assessment gives us information we can use to adapt instruction to the needs of the student NOW. Not tomorrow, or a month from now. Formative assessment must be used quickly, or it’s not formative. Without quick response to the learning/gaming needs of kids, learning becomes too hard or too easy, instructional zone and motivation are lost, and learning and joy are diminished.

Identity and networks of support

Gamers see themselves as learning and getting better, with the end goal of beating the game or an opponent. They often form support networks with friends or colleagues who share tactics, experiences, and suggestions for improvement. With every new skill, with every new level, with every victory their identity as a learner is reinforced.

Contrast this with most classrooms, in which students will be compared to each other along some variation of a Bell Curve for grading. Grading changes the basic interaction among learners. Grades do a good job of comparing students but a lousy job of measuring learning. And they completely fail to encourage students to support each other in the process of learning, build networks of support, and create the collaborative learning structures that many modern businesses want for their employees.

Digital designers build learning systems that are competency based. Players (students) build skills at their own level, at their own pace, are motivated and engaged in the learning process, use personal initiative to try new things and develop new skills, see themselves as excited about getting better, and look to others for ideas and experiences to help them learn. Players see themselves as active learners, not as passive recipients of some drudgery imposed by others. They develop competency one tier at a time, taking as much time as needed. Assessment is continuous, and immediately applied to the delivery of instruction so that the gamer can stay in the zone of success.

Written by

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and presenter, calling for programs and practices which support competency based learning and early learning success. He works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency-Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy (Love and Logic Press). Contact

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  • Great insight. Appreciate the work you are doing. You should join us at the Conference in Cuba this summer. Potential work throughout the Caribbean. Check out our website at for more info on it.

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