A few summers ago, my wife and I planned a beach vacation with a few other families. We rented a house a few blocks from the beach that was large enough to support the eight adults and seven children who were going to spend the week together. When we first arrived, we were amazed at the sheer size of the place. There were three floors, eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and three living rooms. While each room was decorated in a unique beach theme, the most impressive room of the house was the kitchen. Built to prepare food for the magnitude of guests that would stay in a large house like this, the kitchen was massive. It had two refrigerators, two dishwashers and two ovens. Granite countertops encircled the room and a huge granite-topped island stood at the center. It was definitely a room to marvel.
After a day or two of using the kitchen, however, my friends and I realized that the place wasn’t as functional as we had first envisioned. With the number of cabinets and appliances, we were always shouting for assistance from one another. “Where did you find the mixing bowls? Has anyone seen a spatula? Which drawer has the knives in it, again?” While each of us probably organizes our kitchens differently, that beach kitchen didn’t make sense to any of us. Because of our unfamiliarity with the space, simple cooking tasks became more difficult. Processes that would take minutes in our own kitchen now took much longer. The entropy of the space was disorienting and confusing.
I was reminded of that experience recently on my drive to work. I was listening to the Sidedoor podcast which chronicles treasures from the vaults of the Smithsonian Museum. In an episode from December 2019, the podcast examined E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, which has been dubbed “the worst video game ever.” For those of you who may not be familiar with the mythology behind the game, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was developed in 1982 shortly after the movie became a smash success. In an effort to hit shelves in time for the holiday shopping season, Atari assembled a team of programmers to quickly develop a video game. While the game was ready in time for Christmas shoppers, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was so bad that the game eventually bankrupted the entire company. For years, rumors circled that the company had buried all of the existing games in a land fill in New Mexico to hide the evidence that the game ever existed.
The podcast proved the rumors true by starting the episode at the site of a landfill where thousands of copies of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial are unearthed. Later, the host interviewed one of the game developers to discuss what made the game so bad. Reflecting on the game design, the developer discussed the overall goal of the game. Playing as the titular character from the movie, players needed to find pieces of a telephone and then “phone home.” But players got lost within the game. The developer remarked,
“E.T. commits the ultimate video game sin: to disorient the user. And you have to understand the difference between frustration and disorientation, right? Frustration in a video game is essential. Right? A video game must frustrate a user, but you should never disorient them.”
Good video games are designed to frustrate the user. As a player navigates through different levels and conquers different frustrating challenges, they ultimately feel a sense of satisfaction that they’ve accomplished something. That frustration fosters motivation. But disorientation fosters confusion. And confusion can demotivate the user.
Beyond beach house kitchens and poor video game design, I’ve been thinking a lot about disorientation and entropy lately. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the entropy we as teachers create in our classes, both face-to-face and online, and how that entropy can disorient and confuse our students. While we may want to frustrate our students (I prefer Dewey’s concept of “perplexity”), we don’t want to disorient or confuse them so much that they give up. Take an issue that I’ve dealt with a couple of times this week.
I’m constantly editing and revising my online classes to improve the focus of different assignments, to add clarity to different activities and to make the content more relevant to students. As I make changes, however, I’ll sometimes miss an edit here or there, and there will be vestigial traces of some previous reading or activity that I didn’t delete. Then, I’ll get emails from students asking for clarification.
I totally understand their disorientation. These inconsistencies create a degree of entropy that confuses students. Like our family navigating the beach house kitchen or the players getting lost as ET, the entropy can slow students down and demotivate them. And that’s not my goal as a teacher.
So, as I work to improve my online modules, I have to remember to reduce any entropy that my changes can create. I have to work to delete any inconsistencies that could disorient or confuse them. It may not be as fun as a beach vacation or as exciting as a video game, but reducing entropy can impact student motivation and, ultimately, their learning.