Does Duolingo Work?

children-593313_1920Duolingo is a really interesting language learning system because it’s game-based, consists of micro-lessons and caters for continuous learning. I’ve been interested in the system for a while and my visit to Barcelona provided me with an opportunity to use the app consistently to learn Spanish. I found it quite useful to compare this experience to my traditional classroom based language experiences. This is what I’ve learnt after a month of using the app consistently:

  • Learner motivation still contributes hugely to the effectiveness of a language learning system: The immediacy of needing to navigate a foreign country has been a far more effective form of motivation than learning a language which could perhaps be useful to me someday. This motivation means that I practiced consistently, which is half the battle  This huge motivation differential means that it’s not really fair to compare the gamified Spanish experience to the more traditional Portuguese classroom experience.
  • If you do want learners to practice, it’s important to be really specific about what you want them to do: When I was learning other languages, I’d spend valuable practice time trying to define what I needed to learn. This wastes time and is a further barrier to practicing. What I really like about Duolingo is that the entire course of study is decided for the learner when you open the app.
  • Continuous reinforcement is powerful in learning: I probably spend as much time per week learning Spanish as I did when I was going to weekly Portuguese classes. The only difference between two were the length and the frequency of practice. The small daily doses provided by Duolingo are really powerful.
  • Gamefication elements really work: My big problem with learning a language is that you get it wrong almost 25% of the time. In a classroom setting, this can be really daunting. The gamification elements of the app (for instance, the strong positive reinforcement you receive) really helped me to embrace getting it wrong.  I also like the instant feedback that the app provides.
  • It’s really weird not having the rules of the language explained to you: I like learning things that make logical sense. I feel a bit disconcerted not having the logic of tenses explained to me. However Duolingo means that you rely on your intuitive understanding of the language rather than overthinking it.

What was the result of my consistent use of Duolingo? Overall, Duolingo was an effective tool. I managed to do everything I needed to do in Barcelona. I was pleasantly surprised that I could understand complicated directions quite easily. However my spoken Spanish lagged my understanding of written and verbal Spanish considerably. I feel like this lag would have been less significant in traditional language classes. Overall, I suspect that the best way to learn a language is to combine traditional classes with something like Duolingo.

Capacity Development Learning

Low-Tech Gamification Ideas

Gamification is a very useful tool for designing curricula for adult learners. It promotes concentration and engagement with the subject matter. Even though gamification is often associated with technological solutions, elements of gamification can be usefully applied in low tech environments.  Here are some things that I remember when I design curricula in low tech environments


Refresh your understanding of the  MDA Framework: This framework was not written for electronic games per se and so many of the principles (showing progression, promoting learner investment and using narrative) can be applied in low-tech settings

Draw inspiration from board and card games: When I’m faced with a low-tech educational context, I go back to low tech game solutions. Card games and board games have kept people stimulated for ages before we had mobile games. Drawing inspiration from card and board games can include using a literal paper and pen game such as bingo, drawing on board-game design elements in the course materials or demonstrating class progression in a board-game style fashion.

Draw on the strengths in the educational learning environment: You’ve already noted the fact that there isn’t the technology available to implement the kind of fun gamification elements you would like. But what are the strengths of your situation? IS there a strong local tradition of oral story-telling? Can you use this to get participants to add to the narrative content of the curriculum (without appropriating) Is there a safe space outside which you could incorporate into a curriculum?

Involve participants in  crafting their own learning experience: Use live role-plays. Add a timekeeper on tasks to stimulate pressure. Simple things such as sound simulation can be provided by participants themselves.

Don’t be afraid to use a simple solution: Sometimes showing progression involves the facilitator drawing a training plan on a chalk-board and checking modules off as you go. Sometimes and educational game is a piece of paper used in bingo. Game-like sounds can be provided by participants themselves.

Learning Uncategorized

Dealing with Cognitive Challenge in a curriculum



As discussed in the blog on deep work, valuable things are hard to learn. This does not mean that we should shy away from including them in a curriculum. Cal Newport’s book “be so good they can’t ignore you” provides useful pointers for incorporating deep work into a professional career.  I think that these ideas can be used to incorporate cognitively challenging things into a curriculum as well:

  • Distraction-free: When you’re covering hard things, make sure that you have a distraction-free classroom
  • Finite time for challenging tasks: It’s unreasonable to expect learners to engage in deep work/ cognitively challenging activities for 8 hours a day. Ensure that you have enough down-time or repetition incorporated into your curriculum
  • Ritualize the learning of hard things: Newport argues that some kind of ritual is a good way of tackling deep learning. Possible rituals could include a putting hard concepts at the beginning the day or ensuring that you start a hard section with a leg stretch.
  • Manage collaboration carefully: A great deal of deep work is individual, but many of the most successful deep work environments include some kind of team collaboration. Ensure that you think carefully about team work and individual work when tackling hard concepts
  • Focus on the important: Everything is not deep work and most curricula can survive being pared down somewhat. Ensure that every aspect of the curriculum adds to the main learning goal and ruthlessly cut anything that doesn’t
  • Measure: Track the time spent on cognitively challenging tasks and make it public. Provide learners with a clear understanding of how they are doing and areas where they may need to spend more time.

Deep Work

 Cal Newport is a professor at MIT and, as a side hobby, studies deep work for knowledge workers as a side hobby. His philosophy is simple: the ability to do cognitively difficult things will become increasingly valuable in our economy. In fact it’s the only way to make sure that you are not replaced by a robot. He argues that many of the work that is performed in offices today, is of negligible economic value. Many of his ideas may be usefully applied to curriculum design.

Whilst his ideas about the nature of modern work are interesting, I am more interested in the concept of Deep Work itself.  In his book “deep work” he describes deep work as” professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit”.

This is interesting to me, because he’s being explicit about something we often gloss over. Sometimes (often) learning new things is hard. Learning new things often requires a cognitive stretch, which may have an emotional impact. When we are used to working for 10 hour days and so do not understand how two hours spent on learning a new language can be so taxing. . When we learn truly new things, it’s hard. We are often inadequate at the beginning and then improve slowly.

What I like about Cal Newport is that he doesn’t try and put a plaster over this by pretending that cognitively hard things can be made easier. Instead, he argues that state of cognitive strain is exactly what is required to push us to excel. He argues that this work is valuable, that it is hard and that it is rare. He argues that the ability to work in a state of cognitive stretch for a sustained period of time helps one to produce quality work for a sustained period of timePlaceholder Image


Mindset: Tackling the Challenge of Adult Learner Motivation



We all know that we learn better when we want to learn, and the evidence suggests that learner motivation promotes learning outcomes.  Most instructional designers agree that learner motivation promotes learning outcomes. When designing programmes for adult learners, learner motivation becomes particularly important. Training exercises have to compete with the complicated circumstances that adult learners bring to training such as work and family committments. Adult learners have often had bad experiences with previous training experiences which also have an impact on their willingness to go through another potentially disappointing training exercise. We only need to have a look at the retention rates for most MOOCS to see the effect that levels of motivation have on training. While some of this could be explained by learners discovering that the material is genuinely not useful, some of this could be explained by learner motivation

Carol Dweck’s theory of mindset helps to explain resilience in learners and why some learners give up and some continue. Dweck describes two mind-sets: a fixed mind-set and a growth mind-set.

  • People with a fixed mind-set generally believe that their cognitive ability and personality traits are what they are. Furthermore, failure is seen as a judgement on their worth.
  • People with growth mind-sets generally believe that their cognitive ability and personal attributes are flexible. Failure is often re-positioned as a challenge.

Clearly adults with a growth mind-set may be more able to surmount the set-backs that are associated with being an adult learner. Luckily, it is possible for an individual to shift their mindset. Because minds-set has a probable influence on learner motivation, it is useful for instructional designers to understand.  Ideas for dealing with the mind-set challenge when designing curricula for adult learners

  • Address the mindset challenge straight on: educate your learners about growth and fixed mindsets, encourage them to take online tests (like this one).
  • Be explicit about the cognitive load involved in training: explaining that a section of a course involves a cognitive stretch and why that is so, helps learners to turn on their growth mindset .
  • Ensure that the problem-solving nature of the course is clear: learning should not be positioned as a black box with an “A”  for compliance at the end. Your training should encourage learners to develop and share their own problem solving process.
  • Give feedback that enhances the learner’s problem-solving process: Ensure that learners can incorporate feedback into their problem-solving process. For example, instead of saying “this answer is not correct” you can say “consider these adjustments to your problem solving process ”