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Using PIES to Design Group Challenges

How a student ‘feels’, affects learning. This feeling aspect is not about agreeableness or disagreeableness of the subject being studied. It is about whether I feel safe or is my energy being spent in attending to potential threats in that environment.

Some years ago, as some of us talked about aspects of safety while working with groups, we coined the 4 elements as PIES – Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Social. Each one of these is critical in helping create a safe learning environment.

Much later it occurred to me that these were elements that would be useful to consider even while designing challenges for groups. The visual that made it much clearer to me was that of an audio equalizer. It has many sliders, usually representing different frequencies. Moving the sliders up or down increases that frequency, so you can listen to music the way that works for your ears. There is also a volume button.

I’m going to build an analogy between the equalizer and designing challenges for groups.

The Activity Equaliser has 4 frequencies that can be tuned – Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Social challenge. Moving the slider up increases the challenge level in that domain, and down-sliding decreases it. The volume slider represents the environment. When it is at a low, it means that the environment or setting in which we are experiencing the activity does not contribute very much to the difficulty level. At a high, it means we have changed something in the setting that will make the activity more challenging.

I am going to use a fairly well known and used activity called pipes and marbles to illustrate how the sliders can be moved to change the difficulty level of the activity. For those unfamiliar with the activity, I am adding the Activity Brief and photos that might help.

Possible learning Goals

  • Explore relationships

  • Practice problem-solving skills

  • Practice goal-setting & attainment


  • PVC pipe sections, marbles, delivery can.


To deliver as many marbles as possible within the given time. You have 2 primary tasks:

  1. To decide how many marbles you will deliver within a time frame, and

  2. To deliver with 100% quality.


  • At the beginning of every delivery all members must start behind the boundary marker until the marble has been dropped into the first pipe section.

  • Once the marble is in the pipe, people are free to move anywhere they like.

  • Marbles may never stop.

  • Marbles may never roll back.

  • Marbles may not be dropped onto the ground.

  • Marbles may not be touched by any person after the first person drops it into a pipe section.

  • Pipe sections may not touch each other.

  • When a person has the object in the pipe, they may not move their feet.

  • If any of the above happen, start again.

Now lets look at how these sliders can be moved up or down to change the challenge level.

Increased Physical challenge would include anything that causes them some physical discomfort at a personal level, such as:

  • Using only one hand

  • Blind-folding

  • Asking some to stay mute (cant talk)

  • Using water instead of marbles

  • Setting expectations - such as number of marbles

  • Tying them in pairs to limit movement

  • Putting a condition that pipes must be in contact with 2 people while the marble is in it.

  • Having marbles that are not perfect globes

  • Using paper instead of pipes

Increased Intellectual challenge might mean anything that gets them to think about or use their heads in order to do the task, and might include:

  • Describing the props, and giving them the Activity Brief - so they have to imagine and figure things out before they even see the props.

  • Asking them to think through for 15 minutes what exactly they are going to do before allowing them to touch the props.

  • Building a metaphor where the pipes may represent tools of their trade, the marbles represent the products to be delivered, and the delivery can represents the customer site. The facilitator plays customer. Now they have to talk using workplace words instead of pipes and marbles.

  • Make up some of your own!

Increased Emotional challenge might mean anything that gets them to feel emotions resulting from the experience more strongly, and could often result from having raised or lowered the slider in other elements.

  • Blind-folding or having to stay mute could result in frustration or anger

  • Blind-folding could cause a sense of being alienated

  • Make up some of your own!

Increased Social challenge could be doing anything that invites members of the group to have to engage more enthusiastically, talk more, resolve things in order to complete the task, and might include:

  • Not talking while transporting marble

  • Not talking at all - allowing only sign language (no writing)

  • Restricting the number of words that can be used

  • Defining roles for team members

  • Sharing the Brief with only one or two people

  • Inviting people or defining who will lead the activity

  • Make up some of your own!

The PIES element sliders are a tool we can use, and sometimes necessarily so because when we work with groups, we usually have little control over the environment or setting we are going to engage them in. It could be

  • A conference room with fixed or movable furniture,

  • A small enclosed space

  • A large open space in the outdoors

  • If outdoors, it may be too hot or cold, or raining

  • The space may be undulating, with natural obstacles or shrubs

  • Think of all the kinds of place you have been in and you will get a sense of how those conditions might affect how the activity plays out!

Now think about any activity you might be familiar with, and move the sliders up or down depending on what you want to achieve. Be careful that you dont have all your sliders all the way up on all elements - it might result in your audience running away from the activity altogether! Different groups will respond differently to each element. What you think of as difficult may not always be so for the group.

I would love to know what you think of this approach to designing the difficulty level on the PIES elements.

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