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