Why Wordle Works, According to Desmos Lesson Developers
Teachers should steal all of this.
I am a jealous person in a very specific way. I am jealous of enjoyable and productive learning experiences people have outside of math class. Whether people are learning from other classes or stories or games or communities outside of school, I look at those experiences and ask myself, "Why not math too?"
In the last several weeks, a game called Wordle created by a single programmer in his spare time has captured national attention in a way that's pretty uncommon. Wordle has been written up in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. My friends and I are less likely right now to trade photos of our kids in our group messages than to discuss Wordle strategy.
It's a very enjoyable experience and I learn more about words by playing, so I've spent the last several weeks wondering, "What can math class learn from Wordle?"
Wordle has consumed a large and growing number of my Desmos colleagues as well, particularly the ones who develop the lessons in our middle school math curriculum. So I asked several of them which aspects of Wordle they find most professionally inspiring.
A simple question.
The games and stories that have endured longest in our imagination all have a question at their core that is very easy to explain and very hard to fully answer.
How do I hide?
How do I conquer all the territories?
How do I trap the king?
How do I get there first?
Asked to define a good math problem, Tom Sallee once said, "A good problem reveals its constraints quickly and clearly."
Wordle asks you quickly and clearly: What is the five-letter mystery word?
I really love that the rules of the game and the corresponding feedback are simple enough to explain to my 4 year old, but engaging enough to captivate adults of all ages.
Failure is expected.
In recent years, math teachers have worked very hard both to de-stigmatize wrong answers and to prioritize the journey toward mathematical understanding as much as the destination of a correct answer.
Wordle is wildly successful at both goals. "You're expected to fail on the first attempt," said John Rowe. Here, I found out that I got none of the letters correct on the first try, and this is expected.
There isn’t a huge consequence for being wrong and in fact you’re expected to be wrong at least the first few times you try.
Using all six tries is at least as valuable, if not more so, than using just two. Acclaim is given in the [internal Desmos] chat to the fewest tries each day, but sticking with it and pulling it out in the end might result in even more learning than getting it quickly.
Effective feedback attaches meaning to thinking—even and especially incorrect thinking. Expert teachers know that feedback messages like "you're right" and "you're wrong" are less effective than feedback that invites the student who got it right to deepen their thinking and helps the student who got it wrong to see the value in their incorrect answers.
Lots of my colleagues called out Wordle's feedback as particularly effective. Here, for example, I have learned that the mystery word:
contains I, R, and E in other locations,
contains S in exactly that place,
doesn’t contain D at all.
Wordle rewards every thought you bring to it with something new to think about.
Jay Chow appreciated that "the feedback helps guide you to the correct answer."
The feedback is specific to my response and shows me which parts of my response are useful in the solution and which parts of my response are not useful. The feedback leaves me with actionable next steps.
Even if you get nothing correct, you still have information that helps you move forward.
Different routes to the same answer.
If you look at games that have occupied humanity for decades and centuries, each of their central questions makes room for lots of different creative ways to succeed. Even questions that seem trivial—for example: How do you put the basketball in the hoop?—encourage infinite creative approaches.
The same is true with Wordle. Whenever my colleagues trade their answers, they all have the same mystery word, but no two people reached it through the same route of words.
There's room for creativity and many different routes to each solution.
There’s something fun about recognizing that people take different paths to the answer using different strategies based on where their brain is at in the moment.
Your learning results in a product you can share.
If you don't play Wordle, these tweets probably drive you nuts. Maybe you have muted "Wordle" on your timeline. I only feel sadness for you.
For people who play Wordle, these simple sets of colored emojis tell other players essential and interesting details about your gameplay, without revealing the specific words you attempted or the puzzle's actual answer.
Wordle puts the right amount of my business out there. Enough that it feels like I can contribute something personal, but without risking too much embarrassment. I can share my success, but I don’t have to share the messy details. I can even share my progress in a way that feels like it puts me in community with others, rather than feeling like I’m feeling evaluated.
I like the grid as a strong representation of my path to the correct answer, but stripped of specific info, because it can help me think about strategy and it also captures the emotional experience of solving the problem.
Wordle has created conditions for social learning even across time and space. Though my friends and I play Wordle in different cities and at different times, we feel a social connection through the game that is unlike any other digital learning experience I can remember, one that is stronger than even many in-person learning experiences. This is on account of one core and unusual decision the Wordle developer made.
Suzanne von Oy:
I think one of the most genius moves design-wise was to make it only a single game per day. By doing this, a game that could become addictive and isolating instead brings people together. That right there is the reason it’s flooding Twitter. Everyone is working on the same word on any given day. People want to share results with each other, to talk strategy, and to congratulate each other. I have a Wordle chat with my parents and my sister, and after everyone has completed the day’s word, we tend to share screenshots and talk about the choices we made along the way. It’s very non-competitive and involves lots of encouragement from one another no matter the individual outcome. Quite lovely really.
I'm fascinated by the designer's decision to introduce scarcity (one puzzle per day), and how that decision seems to be impacting people's engagement. I have this sneaking suspicion that if I were allowed to complete as many puzzles as I want I probably would have done dozens in the first few days, and then walked away completely after a bit. There's something lovely about one-a-day pacing.
One puzzle a day keeps people wanting more, but also allows people to chat about the day's puzzle which makes the experience much more social and brings people together, making it more memorable and more exciting to keep going.
If you're someone who designs learning experiences, I hope you'll take Wordle as a challenge.
Can you create a wealth of learning opportunities with only a simple prompt?
Can you design the activity and support so that everyone learns as much from failure as success?
Can you offer feedback that goes beyond "right" and "wrong," that helps learners identify everything right about their wrong answers?
Can you make room for multiple paths to correctness?
Can you offer learners a representation of their learning they can share with other people?
I'm not a disinterested bystander here, of course, but I love the way our middle school math curriculum answers each of these questions.
Why else do you think Wordle works? What does it have in common with the lessons you've most enjoyed learning or teaching?
Updates from Twitter people -
2022 Jan 24. Something crucial IMO is that you can’t get behind in Wordle. Just like you can’t binge on Wordle games, you can’t develop a backlog of Wordle games either. “I should really catch up on Wordle,” is something no one has said, which may make it feel easier to pick it back up.
2022 Feb 2. Wordle shares a feature with great lessons in that it has a strong sense of core challenge but allows participants to modify it and extend it in interesting and personal ways. My friends and I are currently starting with the same first word … just to try something new and see if it’s fun for us. Great learning experiences offer the same opportunities.
2022 Feb 13. Maybe relevant also is Wordle’s required time commitment. It scales with your interest and can be very, very low.
2022 Feb 15. Imagine you type a word into Wordle and it shows you a red x if it’s correct and a green check if it’s wrong. That’s all the feedback you get. That’s what it’s like learning math on computers.
Please read and pass along this open letter from Steve Leinwand and a bunch of math education leaders (plus yours truly) calling on our national teachers and supervisors of math education to develop new high school mathematics standards.
Robert Kaplinsky straps on the Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality goggles and wonders "What will education look like in the virtual reality metaverse?" Y'all can roast me for being wrong about this when we're all bobbing up and down in vats of goo, doing all of life in the metaverse, but I'm pretty pessimistic about the opportunities for math education here. (VR's answers to my four questions about edtech aren't great so far IMO.)
Dr. Shelley Jones, the president of the Benjamin Banneker Association, has a new book out with co-authors Drs. Lou Matthews and Yolanda Parker that I'm excited to check out: Engaging in Culturally Relevant Math Tasks.
Allison Hintz and Antony Smith are Mathematizing Children's Literature. Elementary educators get to teach ELA and mathematics so I'm always excited about any and all efforts to connect the two disciplines.
One more book: mine! Let me announce that I'm working on a book that researches the techniques of successful game designers and storytellers and steals all of them for math educators. It'll be edited by Tracy Zager and published by Stenhouse in early [mumbles deliberately].