Real engagement is often confused with “empty calorie” fun:
We’re all familiar with classrooms, sports teams, and offices that are absolutely brilliant at engineering fun, yet far less brilliant at producing real improvement. The late coach Tom Martinez called them “ice-cream camps” — places where the focus was not truly on skills, but rather on the sweet, entertaining buffet of activities that filled the day.
So the real question is: how do you spark engagement and avoid the empty calories of mere fun? Here are a few ideas:
- Spend time designing a game that is built around the specific skills you want to teach. Aim to place learners in their sweet spot: tasks that are not too difficult, and not too easy.
- Talk less. Real engagement doesn’t happen when a teacher or coach is talking (a recent MIT study showed that student physiological arousal essentially flatlines during lectures). Engagement doesn’t come from words, but from actions and involvement.
- Aim for swift feedback. The most engaging games are transparent: you don’t need a coach or teacher to inform you how you’re doing, because the game tells you.
- Keep it social. Engagement operates like a virus. As the video shows, small groups are a good way to increase the odds of those viruses being transmitted.
- Do the minimum. The leader’s role is to do nothing except to keep things moving. Set the stage, then back off and let it happen. A good leader’s job is sort of like cloud-seeding. You can’t make the lightning strike happen. But you can design the conditions where the chances increase.
That’s not to say that fun isn’t a vital ingredient — it is. But the key is to understand that fun should be the seasoning, not the main dish.