Differentiation Done The Super Mario Way

I’ve been playing Super Mario Bros 3D on the Nintendo Switch recently with my four year old. This is a game where you can have multiple players so he and I can be playing together as two separate characters on the same screen.

Whilst he plays it really well, there are some levels that are especially tricky. If you die multiple times on the same level, the game has a mechanic where it offers up automatically an ‘invincibility leaf’ that, well, makes the player who uses it invincible. So, you can now play the same level, but instead of needing to jump around hazards or nimbly attack ‘bad guys’ you can now just run into them and, pop, they go away.

As we were playing, this struck me as a really interesting example of the kind of differentiation and scaffolding we should all be aiming for. If he finds it difficult or he doesn’t quite have the appropriate reactions or dexterity, the game doesn’t send him off to an easier or different level. Instead, it scaffolds the game for him by offering a power-up.

We still both of us retain the exact same aim and we both continue to play alongside each other on the same level. All the hazards remain exactly the same. The goals remain exactly the same. What has changed isn’t the game or our joint aim, but rather the support being offered.

It struck me too that the reason this works is the same reason it would in the classroom. By being offered the power-up, he’s able to focus all of his attention on the more fundamental controls and mechanics of the game. The extraneous cognitive load of dealing with loads of enemies rushing quickly at him is removed and instead he can practice, and get better at, the first steps before progressing. And progress he can because with the support being offered he is able to practise and refine, until eventually he doesn’t actually need the power up.

This is differentiation and scaffolding done right: the expectation doesn’t change, everyone has the same goal and completes the same tasks. In this example, there are two players with very different starting points and very different levels of ability (I’m not especially good, by the way, just better than a four year old!) But yet we’re still able to keep pace with one another and we’re both able to complete the same objectives. What does change, though, is the support being offered, enabling those who might struggle with the opportunity to access and enjoy the same content and material as everyone else.

And there is a real enjoyment in this. The game doesn’t ‘dumb down’ for him, but rather raises him up. He is able to experience the success of completing the same level as before, to get better at doing it, and eventually fade the support so he can do it without. And he has the enjoyment too of completing it alongside me.

This is what differentiation should be all about: not different tasks for different perceived abilities, but one high expectation for all and the necessary support, eventually faded away, to help make sure everyone can reach that aim and experience the success of having done so.

Now, back to playing Mario…

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