What can we learn from the Rubik’s Cube about designing great learning?

Solving the Rubik's Cube

From Flickr: People engrossed in solving the Rubik’s Cube

Watching my 9 year old nephew trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube for the first time I wondered what is it about this puzzle that makes it so addictive and popular. A quick Internet research revealed that over 350 million Rubik’s Cube have been sold worldwide and there are more than 100 different variations of the original puzzle already in circulation. The Rubik’s Cube is the world’s top selling puzzle game.

People like its beauty, simplicity and form. It’s really not a puzzle or a toy. It’s a piece of art.” The Rubik’s Cube: A Puzzling Success – TIME

Hundreds of books have been written on the Rubik’s Cube by authors ranging from Mathematicians to science fiction and pop culture writers. New on-line forums and groups spring-up almost every day on the Internet while people organize meetups to solve the puzzle in groups and initiate new members into the exciting world of speed solving the Rubik’s Cube. The Rubik’s Cube has influenced programmers, mathematicians, and comic and music artists. It has even started an art movement called RubikCubism.

As I gleaned and read through the volumes of work dedicated to the Rubik’s Cube, I realized that some very simple mechanisms and design elements make the Rubik’s Cube such an enigmatic puzzle. Once I had worked through my list, I had a sudden insight that most of these mechanics/features may also apply to the design of great learning.

Here are some of the design principles and mechanics of a Rubik’s Cube that can influence the design of great learning:

1. It has a clear goal

The moment you hold a Rubik’s Cube in your hand you are clearly aware of the goal. One doesn’t need to read a User’s Manual to understand the goals. The manner in which the Rubik’s Cube is designed, its visual attributes and structure, make the challenge and the goal obvious. This may be one of the reasons that most Rubik’s Cubes are sold in clear transparent packaging. One interesting point to note is that the goal itself is presented as a challenge.

My reflections:
  • How can we present learning goals in a manner that is enticing?
  • Instead of presenting boring learning objectives, should we present challenges and problems learners will solve during a learning program?

2. It is tough but rewarding

If you have ever tried solving a Rubik’s Cube you would know that it is challenging and tough. However, you also know that solving something this challenging can also be extremely rewarding. The rewards range from feeling good about ones capabilities to social recognition. In fact, in popular media like films and comics, the ability to solve the Rubik’s Cube fast establishes a character’s cognitive superiority.

My reflections:
  • How can we make the process of learning challenging and rewarding?
  • Should learning be rigorous?
  • How can we hit that “Perfect Equilibrium of Skill and Challenge” (from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ) while designing a learning program?
  • How can we design rewards (not just points and badges) that make learners feel truly empowered when they go back to work after a learning program?

3. It offers clear and complete control, freedom and immediate feedback

These are all extremely simple design principles but make the Rubik’s Cube one of the most engaging puzzles. The player has complete freedom in making a move or changing the configuration. The player also receives immediate feedback. One important point to note about the Rubik’s Cube is that one can try solving the puzzle unlimited number of times with no fear of failure. Put all these design principles together and you get true engagement.

My reflections:
  • In the design of learning, particularly eLearning, we must never forget the 3 design principles of complete control, freedom and immediate feedback
  • Make failing tasks easy
  • Make trying and re-trying more important than getting it right

4. It is oriented towards gaining mastery

Mastery is perhaps the greatest reward and the quest for mastery drives behaviour like nothing else does. When I speak to my friends who range from Insurance Actuaries to Underwriters and World of Warcraft players, I realize how important it is for humans to gain mastery in whatever they are doing. It is the desire to gain mastery that makes tasks addictive and extremely complex skills worth spending hours on. Mastery also turns the locus of control and motivation inside rather than outside a person. The current record for solving a 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube by a human is 5.55 seconds. Ask any Rubik’s Cube player and they will tell you they want to reach those ‘Godly’ speeds.

My reflections:
  • How can we design learning programs that help people gain mastery?
  • How can we help learners benchmark theirs skills and behaviours?
  • How can we offer opportunities for unlimited practice, failure and improvements?

That was my short list of a few mechanics/features that can influence the design of learning program. I invite you to add more in the comment stream below.

Solving the Rubik’s Cube and Flow

Interestingly, while watching videos of people solving the Rubik’s Cube, I found almost all of them displaying the behavioural attributes described by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Here is a link and video on Professor Mihali’s book.

Links and References:


Cover image: Photos by Jeremy Keith – Flickr

Ajay Dasgupta

Ajay Dasgupta is the co-founder and VP, Global Sales at Epiphany Learning. In a career spanning over 18 years he has worked with several large organisations and implemented learning strategy and learning programs. While he focuses on learning strategy, technology and marketing, he his still an instructional designer at heart. He can be reached at - ajay.gupta@epiphanylearning.co.in

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