Set, and cognitive diversity

I was getting ready to post a link to the game Set and got distracted by a review that began like this: “I find it amazing that children could play this.”

It’s nice that the reviewer was impressed that a child could play a game he considered difficult, but for some children, many children even, this game is not difficult. It makes cognitive demands on the player that would occur for many people as difficult, and others as fairly simple and obvious. There are children who are tremendously well-suited to these cognitive demands, and children who aren’t.  Likewise, there are adults who are well-suited to them and adults who aren’t.  This is also true of  the demands of reading, driving cars, knitting, filling out forms, balancing equations, and keeping plants alive. This is not to say that it isn’t possible to get better at things as you get older.  Only that getting older is not how one gets smart. And that there isn’t one kind of smart.

If we paid more attention to cognitive diversity – the way different minds are suited to different tasks – we’d make room for better use of the range of human potential available to us.

And Set is a great game.  It’s a simple set of cards with a collection of shapes on each card.  Players look at an array of 12 cards and seek combinations of three that meet a set of criteria.  (You can try your hand at it online here; be careful of your eyes, though.  There’s a lot of intense looking involved, so the print version of the game is probably safer!) The game is great practice for managing more than one piece of information at a time, for analyzing characteristics, for categorizing, for sorting.

I was also thinking, the first time I played, that the experience of a game like this one, which for many of us is unlike anything we’ve ever tried to do and can be frustrating, is probably a helpful exercise in understanding what it’s like for kids (and others) when they’re trying to do something that seems to come easily to others but not to them.  The older we get the more we tend to shy away from things that we don’t already know how to do or might embarrass us if they don’t turn out well, all the while encouraging children to face their fears and go out on limbs to learn things.  If we’re willing to subject ourselves to actually going through the scary uncertainty of not knowing and possibly looking inept, we can really know the nature of that stress.


4 Responses

  1. I wonder what it means that I don’t understand the instructions but the game comes really easily to me.

    Must go test on my son.

    The instructions seem wrong so I had to just sort of “gestalt” it. I never was an instruction reader though.

    Another great post. My aunt who is 82 says we have to keep doing the things we love (like travel for example) as we get older because if we fall out of the habit of those things, we get scared to do them again.

  2. I LOVE this thought of cognitive diversity! Of course! I’ve known this on some level but never named it (sometimes naming things is refreshing to me), so thank you. You writings are right up there with my inspiring (Facebook) posts from the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle!

  3. Crap, I’m one of those to whom the game is not well-suited! Off to try the other members of my family!

    • Laurel raises an important point I didn’t address. The other phenomenon with a game (or other task) like this one is this: of course it’s possible to sit down with it, fail, and have absolutely no interest in further attempts. But it’s also possible to sit down with it, fail, and be totally enthralled, fascinated, consumed with getting to the bottom of it.

      It’s the search for finding the things that have that effect on us – the I-will-master-this-no-matter-what-it-takes – that are probably our best guides. The things we’re quickly or easily good at, well, sometimes the being good at is enough to sustain us and keep our attention. But the things we’re so fiercely attracted to that we’ll be patient, practice, try again and again, those are the ones we know we can count on to keep feeding us, keep expanding and improving us. And likely the ones that will offer us more lasting success and steer us away from burnout…

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