Slice of Life 25: Lessons from Mario Kart

Lessons from Mario Kart

Colin, sitting on the floor, “playing” Mario Kart. He was only 11 months old at the time.

Colin, my five-year-old, loves playing Mario Kart.  He wasn’t even a year old, barely walking, when he first held those Nintendo Wii controllers in his still chubby baby hands. Who knew that when we let him pretend play with his older brother that five years later—a lifetime in childhood years—he would still be as obsessed with Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Yoshi, Koopa Troopa, and all their friends.

Last summer we upgraded to the Wii U game system and with it, the game Mario Kart 8, the latest version of the famed Nintendo racing series. Since then, Colin has become the undisputed racing champion in the family. Granted, no one else has really played that much (his brothers prefer Minecraft or the Disney Infinity games). Meanwhile, Colin has logged more hours of Mario Kart racing than all of us combined—times ten (at least). 

Colin has been asking me to race against him for a while now (I guess it wasn’t a good idea to tell him how I used to play the old Mario Kart with my brother when we were little). This week with spring break upon us, I finally decided to give it a go.

Now, I don’t want to brag, but I like to think of myself as a pretty good driver, in both the real and virtual world. And when I was growing up, Mario Kart was my specialty. So when I took up Colin’s challenge to race him this week, I figured I’d have to go a little easy on him since I clearly had an advantage. It didn’t take very long before I realized that I was out of my league. Even when I decided to give my very best efforts, Colin won race after race, after race.

Basically, as his brothers would say, I got schooled.

“I was really trying,” I told my husband later. He just laughed at me.

“Well, what did you expect?” he replied. “He’s been playing for months.”

As I watched Colin zoom through one track after another this morning, I thought about what lessons his Wii racing mastery might reveal about how we learn.


I’m not exactly sure how many hours Colin has played Mario Kart—I’d probably be horrified and ashamed at the actual number—but there’s no doubt that he’s as good as he is today because of the sheer number of hours he’s played. Whether it’s playing video games or reading and writing, volume matters. As Kelly Gallagher reminds us,

The volume of writing is the key ingredient. If I provide good modeling but my kids do not write much, they will not grow. If I confer with them but they do not write much, my students will not grow. If I provide a lot choice but they do not write much, my students will not grow.

Modeling, conferring, and choice are critical to growth, but if my students are not writing enough, these factors become irrelevant. (emphasis added)

And of course, the same can be said for reading. Volume leads to fluency. Fluency builds competency. Competency leads to confidence, which increases motivation. And motivation drives success with more difficult texts. Thus, it is volume that ultimately leads to growth.


Even when Colin isn’t actually playing Mario Kart, he likes to watch it. How? YouTube. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube videos that users have shared with tips and tricks for every video game imaginable. Most of the time, Colin doesn’t even watch the tips and tricks videos, but the many others that are simply recordings of more experienced players racing each track.

That’s right—he’s watching more experienced players. He watches the ways the drivers move—the way they approach each track, the turns they take, when to brake and when to speed up. He learns from more experienced players the way our students can learn from more experienced writers and readers. As Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti write in their book Writing with Mentors

Mentor texts are model pieces of writing—or excerpts of writing—by established authors that can inspire students and teach them how to write, and they have become the single most important element of our writing instruction.

When our students study mentor texts, they learn to imitate and play with the craft moves that authors make. They learn to see the decisions that writers make and consider the decisions that they, too, can make in their own writing.


At last summer’s ISTE conference in Philadelphia, I attended a session titled “The Game is the Thing: Gamification in the English Language Arts.” In the session, Pittsburgh English teacher Daniel Harold shared research on why so many people play video games. Even people who wouldn’t typically think of themselves as traditional gamers have played more games of Candy Crush or Angry Birds they might care to admit.

One reason games about candy matching and flying birds have become so popular is the way the games are constructed. Players are motivated at each level to continue on to the next one because they get immediate feedback at every step of the way. The feedback doesn’t even have to positive each time, either. As Harold pointed out at the session, when you play Angry Birds, you often lose more often than you win. In fact, you can fail many, many times at each level; all that matters is that at some point, you play well enough to pass the level and move on to the next.

Think about that: could you imagine a school situation in which students fail multiple times and yet stay motivated to continue? Or when failing actually leads to increased motivation?

Colin loves playing Mario Kart, and though he may be an expert now, he had to lose plenty of races before he won more. At least one reason he stayed motivated was because each time he lost, he knew exactly why. He could then make an adjustment in the next race, a course correction (pun intended). And he could make that correction immediately. In other words, feedback was timely as was the ability to apply that feedback.

I know that I have a lot to learn in terms of timely instruction. Although I provide feedback to students, the second—perhaps more important part of feedback—is that it happens “just in time” for students to do their own course correction. Feedback has to be summative but also formative. Whether it’s in writing or reading, students need regular, specific feedback so that they can grow as learners.

I‘m sure there are other lessons from this situation that I can take back to my classroom—lessons about persistence, choice, and independence. For now, I’ll focus on the three above, which I guess means I’ve got some YouTube racing videos waiting for me if I’m ever going to win against my five-year-old.

slice of life

This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit


  1. schmidtkristas

    Oh, the things we can learn from playing with our kids! I love these connections.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rita K.

    Tricia, This is such an interesting and well-written post. Your analogy and quotes that support your points, make this worthy of publication. I really enjoyed this and also enjoyed the workshop you gave last Saturday at PAWLP. Hope you continue to share your gifts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This post reflects so much about our household and my sons. For us, there was also a level of Liam, my son with Aspergers, to use the overarching storyline of Mario to practice social interactions. Like you shared about pretend play, he could only pretend with the Mario world as the foundation. But then he would pretend and make new scenarios. Then, his hours of practice would gain him entry and even acceptance, as this was one of the only thing he did that other boys could relate to. And he did it very well. He was always sought out for his expertise, which led to friendly relationships, if not friendship. I love how you weave literacy skills into this conversation. Loved reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Aileen. I appreciate hearing about your son, too, and the way that Mario has been a bridge for him. Sometimes we find opportunities for growth in the most unexpected places, huh? 🙂 Thanks, Aileen.


  4. Honestly, my money will remain on your 5 year old! Not because I don’t have faith in you. But your persistence will focus on the teaching, the mothering, the mentoring and Mario Kart will be down the list. I loved reading some of your thoughts and connections here about practice and feedback.

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  5. Have you read Outliers from Malcolm Gladwell? There’s a whole section on the 10,000 hours idea, and while I’m not saying that your son has spent 10,000 hours playing Mario Kart (though many teenagers… I wouldn’t be shocked!), it’s the same idea of boat loads of practice to become an expert. It’s fascinating for sure.

    Additionally, I really love your analogy to gaming and immediate feedback. This is where I struggle the most. My classes, as I’ve said, are mostly on and below level, so I spend a lot of time monitoring behavior and redirecting than I do teaching unfortunately. However, my goal this year is feedback – how to give specific and quick formative feedback to students versus waiting until I’ve finished grading their major projects for them to get my feedback. I am not great at getting essays back in a timely manner – I procrastinate with all of the smaller assignments instead of the larger projects. So there were weeks going by sometimes without my students getting feedback. Now I try to make a point of giving specific feedback on their work as they work on it, instead of just after I’ve graded, in addition to making small presentations about class wide issues. Your post makes some really fantastic points – really awesome shift in thinking for me about what I’m doing and what the students need. Thank you!

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    • Yes, Outliers is great. I’ve listened to all his books on tape and his New Yorker pieces are some of my students’ favorite to read. “Getting In” is a particular favorite, esp. to pair with Frank Bruni’s “How to Survive College Admission Madness” in the NY Times.

      I hear you on the feedback. It’s so hard. I have also tried to shift my feedback to more formative “just in time” feedback. Do you have an LMS? We are implementing Schoology district-wide next year and I think that will help – A LOT. I’m piloting a few things now and have already seen a big difference.


      • Yes – I was using Haiku the last few years at Brenda Krupp’s suggestion but then our district moved to Canvas. I’ve liked it a lot so far, with some drawbacks as with anything. It does absolutely help with the feedback piece, but I don’t get the sense that the feedback is easily viewable by students unless they actively search for it. Let me know how you like Schoology!


        • Schoology is great so far, though all I’ve been doing is grading discussion posts. When I grade a post, I use a rubric that “pops up” so students see how they scored, plus a comment, if I leave one. I’m actually really excited about it. The essay feedback look likes it’ll be just as seamless.

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