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Untold Play

Use the magic of cards to create powerful learning experiences

Use the magic of cards to create powerful learning experiences

by Terry Pearce

2 years ago

Before the periodic table was a table, it was a deck of cards. Dmitri Mendeleev would carry around a set of home-made cards, each with an element on it and its key properties. He played a kind of solitaire with them, looking for patterns. The patterns he found became the table we see today in every chemistry classroom.

This is the power of a deck of cards. When we create a set of cards around an issue, the cards are:

  • Individual: each one represents a different part of the situation
  • Moveable: they can be laid out in different combinations and configurations
  • Complete: they represent all factors at play (or all selected as important)

We shuffle, deal and lay out cards. This gives our brain focal points to channel useful thinking that moves us forward. We can compare or combine two cards that represent two elements of the situation. We can select a set of cards that seem relevant. We can brainstorm and record ideas that each one brings about, or match problems with solutions.

In groups, it also allows us to create some distance between a concept and the person who raises it. When I suggest an idea, it’s my idea. This can create difficult dynamics when working with it. But if the card holds the idea, I focus on how I identify with it or experience it. A space opens up; we can share ownership.

The range of business uses is vast, but how can it help us to design learning experiences?


There are a huge range of creativity decks available. Each card usually shows a prompt or spark for inspiration. At a basic level, they can just be a few dozen prompts, like the ‘Oblique Strategies’ deck that lent inspiration for David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ album.

More structure can help. Some creativity decks are based around innovation tools like SCAMPER, or other categories for types of creativity. The ’75 Tools for Creative Thinking’ deck from Booreiland is a great use of this approach.

When we design learning, we can build cards like this into creativity workshops. In strategy workshops, they can help people unlock fresh thinking and choose direction. In fact, we could use them anywhere we want learners to move away from the tried-and-tested and unlock creativity.

Behavioural insights

The market leader here is Coglode, who distil a huge amount of behavioural science research and insight into their ‘Nuggets’ cards. Each card details an insight into a human tendency or bias.

Companies like Spotify, Zoopla and Duolingo use them to think about their offering, from product design to marketing. Each card, alone or in combinations, can be used to ask questions like, ‘how will this affect us?’ or ‘how can we use this’?

This kind of reflection channels powerful learning. For any topic involving human bias and behaviour, we can use cards like this to structure and inspire activities around ‘how’. The Nuggets price tag of £450 per deck shows how much big organisations value the insights from this approach.

Organisational problem-solving cards

XPlane’s ‘Discovery’ cards deck tackles common organisational issues and solutions. Each card gives a common issue or solution, in various categories or suits. There are plenty of decks from others on similar themes.

It’s easy to see how this could be useful in a range of learning design contexts. Imagine the power of this: your learners leave aside for one moment their specific complaints and start to look at how they fit into the kinds of problems and solutions common to many organisations.

They identify cards that are or aren’t part of the issue. They prioritise and sort those cards. They make notes next to each about the specifics, collaboratively. They structure them into a process or match them to proven solutions.

Other topics

We only scratch the surface with three topics. MethodKit has created 42 decks of cards, on topics from Projects to Gender Equality. The Deckaholic blog has a huge index of decks from around the world. Ola Möller of MethodKit has a great blog post on a broad range.

I’ve created bespoke decks for individual sessions on topics like stress management, problem-solving, communication styles and performance management. I’ve made great use myself of gamification cards in my design, to help build game-like elements into learning experiences.

Accessing the power of cards for your learning design

There are three key ways you can unlock some of the powers of cards this article talks about:

  • Find a deck that fits with a learning experience you need to design/improve
  • Design a deck yourself
  • Use a deck of cards to help unlock your own creativity in learning design

The links from this post are a great place to start on the first of these.

If you want to create your own, I’m planning a follow-up how-to article to dig deeper into how to create a set of cards for use in a workshop. Or you could use the examples I’ve talked about here to inspire yourself in starting out on your own.

To boost your own design, you could use a creatively focused deck like Oblique Strategies or 75 Tools. But there will soon be another, more focused way.

I think learning designers could get a lot from a deck of cards designed to help them build great learning experiences. So, I’ve created a focused deck to do just that, to be published soon. Watch this space, or subscribe to my mailing list, and you’ll be the first to know when it’s available.