The Principles of Fun, Rigor, and Community

Silverquicken is all about fun, rigor, and community. Why are these three principles so important for our kids? Fortunately, a lot of research tells us why. 

Fun provides the right kind of motivation—intrinsic, not extrinsic—for sustained effort on rigorous academic and social tasks. In turn, succeeding at such tasks creates not only long-lasting learning but changed beliefs about one’s abilities. Moreover, tackling these kinds of challenges in group settings builds community.

The first principle of Silverquicken is fun. Why? Because for many kids, school is not fun. We’re not saying that school has to be fun all the time. But a dose of true fun at school can help offset the aspects of education that aren’t so fun, for better or for worse.

The Unfortunate Power of Non-Fun at School

In the Harry Potter stories, when magical children arrive at Hogwarts, a Sorting Hat permanently assigns them to different Houses. This process might not seem so bad in fiction. However, the way in which our real-life educational system puts Sorting Hats on kids’ heads over and over is decidedly not fun, and it can have pernicious effects.

By the time children reach late elementary school, teachers judge them repeatedly on their academic performance. These formal and informal judgments become very apparent to the kids themselves, whether through report cards, ability groupings, or other kinds of self-evident sorting and assessing mechanisms.

Unfortunately, these academic judgments can give rise to early fixed self-identities around school performance and, by extension, learning ability and even intelligence. Fixed mindsets of this type are detrimental to children’s growth; they can become self-fulfilling prophecies. All too often, kids who bomb a random third-grade math test start to believe they’re terrible at math—and their ability to learn further math is undermined. And kids who aced the test can become fearful of making mistakes and suffer from impostor syndrome. 

As schools assess children on the basis of what they’ve learned, and how quickly and well they’ve learned it, the activity of learning itself becomes strongly associated with school. Learning becomes a means to an end: good grades, teacher or parent approval, admission to the top math group, promotion to the next grade level, and so on. These motivations are extrinsic, not intrinsic.

Well-meaning teachers, departments, schools, and districts try to promote the love of learning for its own sake. But within school settings, the tide pulls systematically and strongly toward extrinsically motivated learning. Unfortunately, extrinsic motivation doesn’t really work for the kinds of higher-order thinking tasks at which we especially want kids to succeed.

Extrinsic Motivation is Much More of a Stick than a Carrot

Sadly and ironically, extrinsic motivation is much less effective than intrinsic motivation at creating deep and lasting educational impact—and yet we use extrinsic motivation all the time to reward performance and behavior in school.

Extrinsic rewards, also known as “if-then rewards” and “contingent motivators,” do motivate better performance on cognitively simple tasks. If you want to get someone to dig a ditch faster, you should pay that person more money. However, after a certain point, extrinsic rewards actually cause performance to get worse on cognitively complex tasks. The extrinsic reward narrows thinking and increases stress, hindering creative leaps that are necessary to solve the task. This effect, first discovered 80 years ago, has been replicated many times since then, including by Dan Ariely, as described by Daniel Pink in a fantastic TED talk.

Extrinsic motivators can also inflict longer-term damage on the desire to engage with challenges:

“In a now classical experiment… college students were either paid or not paid to work for a certain time on an interesting puzzle. Those in the no-reward condition played with the puzzle significantly more in a later unrewarded “free-time” period than paid subjects, and also reported a greater interest in the task. This experiment has since been replicated many times, with numerous variations in design… and in types of subjects.”

Alfie Kohn makes a similar case in “Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes,” a book whose title is both self-explanatory and saddening.

The Power of Fun: It’s Intrinsically Motivating

In contrast, Silverquicken is all about intrinsic motivation. We prioritize and celebrate the fun and wonder of learning itself. Our students tell us, almost in amazement, that at Silverquicken they learn so many interesting things, but it doesn’t feel like school at all. Both of those points are exactly what we intend.

We didn’t popularize the term “The Power of Fun”: journalist and author Catherine Price did. She defines “True Fun” as the “magical confluence of playfulness, connection and flow.” She claims that “[i]f you use True Fun as your compass, you will be happier and healthier. You will be more productive, less resentful, and less stressed. You will have more energy. You will find community and a sense of purpose. You will stop languishing and start flourishing. And best of all? You’ll enjoy the process.” 

These words encapsulate the work and the goals of Silverquicken.

The Power of Rigor: Productive Struggle toward Personal Transformation

The fun and wonder of Silverquicken enable the rigor of the experience. Silverquicken challenges are difficult. In fact, they can be far more difficult than typical school-based tasks for our age groups, because Silverquicken tasks are intrinsically, not extrinsically, motivated.

In education, “productive struggle” (which Manu Kapur calls “productive failure”) is considered ideal for learning. Students should be working on tasks that are “just right” in level of difficulty, with expert guidance that’s alternately reassuring and challenging. Under these Goldilocks conditions, learners grow in both skill and confidence. 

The value of productive struggle is well known, as can be observed in the constellation of related constructs: Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Bjork’s desirable difficulty, and even the Yerkes-Dodson law of optimal arousal/stress. 

Dweck’s growth mindset and Duckworth’s grit are famous qualities that enable, and in turn are reinforced by, productive struggle. Over time, productive struggle against a laddered sequence of authentic tasks in a field can fundamentally transform a learner’s self-identity around that field, moving from “I’m terrible at math and I hate it” to “I can do math and I like it!”

But Productive Struggle is Hard to Find, Even in Great Schools

Unfortunately for schools, productive struggle on cognitively complex tasks is difficult to foster in extrinsically motivated environments. Performance on tasks that require hard thought decreases under high-anxiety conditions, especially in the presence of a high-stakes rewards structure. School grades present especially high-stakes rewards and ego-relevant threats, because grades are seen as diagnostic of important inherent characteristics, such as intelligence.

As a result, all too much of what winds up happening in school is designed to be non-threatening. In one study, K-12 students succeeded on 71% of their assignments but only met grade-level standards on 17% of those same assignments. This creates an “Opportunity Myth,” whereby children and their families believe they are doing well, but they’re actually falling behind.

Challenging work can be risky to assign. Active learning activities that spur productive struggle lead to better learning outcomes but can actually cause students to feel worse in a traditional classroom, as seen in randomized trials in Harvard physics classes:

“Comparing passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials, we find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning… Most importantly, these results suggest that when students experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort to signify poorer learning. That disconnect may have a detrimental effect on students’ motivation, engagement, and ability to self-regulate their own learning.”

These Harvard physics students were interpreting their struggle negatively. They were taking their active-learning efforts to mean that they weren’t learning, when in fact the opposite was the case: their effort was causing them to learn. What an indictment of our educational system, if these students who achieved such success in our grueling college admissions process had no idea how to learn hard material!

The Silverquicken model avoids many of these issues, because our difficult, cognitively complex challenges are intrinsically motivated. Students work hard in Silverquicken for fun. The “a-ha” moments are all that more meaningful and transformative.

Kids Need Psychologically Safe Communities

Children need communities in which they feel safe to test their wings. This truth may seem obvious, but there is clear support in brain science.

Let’s take the tween and early teen years as an example. At this stage of adolescence, the brain grows at its fastest rate since infancy, but different parts of the brain grow at different rates. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex is one of the slowest regions to develop, leaving pre-teens with little executive functioning ability and more reliance on the amygdala to process emotions and social situations. Simultaneously during this phase of adolescence, kids develop a greater need for independence and peer relationships, spending more time in situations where they may encounter confusing or stressful situations.

Therefore, it is incredibly valuable for children in this age group to have communities that welcome them, value them, and bring them together around common, pro-social purposes. Children of this age need to learn about metacognition (i.e., their ability to think about how they think) and how to evaluate and make good decisions. They also need to be put into low-stakes situations in which they can safely try, make mistakes, learn, and grow from those experiences.

Of course, younger children also need and benefit from these kinds of psychologically safe and positive places. The younger the kids are, the more they require guidance from and closeness to trusted adults, who thus play a greater role in the group. But the principles of “safe to try” communities are ultimately the same.

The Power of Community: Welcoming Everyone to a Greater Whole

Silverquicken provides both direct learning (about metacognition, decision analysis, etc.) and low-stakes opportunities to tackle challenges, make mistakes, and grow. Our stories provide safe “observation windows”: in our fictional narrative, our pre-teen heroes demonstrate behaviors and emotions, both positive and negative, that we know our real-life students are experiencing. Thus, our students are provided many avenues for reflection and exploration of relevant issues. Through the activities we engage in and the challenges we tackle together in our classes and clubs, we build Silverquicken communities.

Our principles of Fun, Rigor, and Community are self-reinforcing. Because the relationships within our communities are built out of tackling fun, difficult challenges, our kids learn to work together toward a common goal, drawing on and recognizing each other’s contributions. Thus, the fun and the rigor of Silverquicken reinforce this goal of building positive communities. In turn, the community aspect of Silverquicken makes the experience more fun and further enables the rigor of our challenges (for instance, if you get stuck on a challenge, you know your group will be there to help).


Anthony, M., “Social Development in Pre-Teens: What You Need to Know” (review article at Scholastic Parents).

Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G. and Mazar, N. (2009), “ Large Stakes and Big Mistakes”, The Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Apr., 2009), pp. 451.

Bénabou, R. and Tirole, J. (2003), “ Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation”, The Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Jul 2003), pp. 489-520.

Bjork, E.L., and Bjork, R.A. (2015), “Chapter 5: Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating

Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning.” In Gernsbacher, M.A. and Pomerantz, J.R. (Eds.), Psychology and the Real World (pp. 56-64), Worth Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008).

Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., and Kestin, G. (2019), “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom”, Proceedings of the National

Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, September 24, 2019 116 (39) 19251-19257.

Duckworth, A., “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” (Scribner, 2018).

Dweck, C., “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” (Ballantine, 2007).

Kapur, M. (2016), Examining Productive Failure, Productive Success, Unproductive Failure, and Unproductive

Success in Learning (Educational Psychologist, 51:2, 289-299).

Kohn, A., “Punished By Rewards: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” (HarperOne, 2018).

Price, C., “The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again” (Dial Press, 2021).

TNTP, “The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It (2018).

Table Of Contents