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: