Gamification In The Classroom

bart chalk

I am done with school. School is, for me, in fact out forever Mr. Cooper. Armed with things like degrees and a thesis, I can officially consider myself a well-educated member of society. Not in practical matters of being an adult or anything like that. Knowing all fifty states has never helped me do my taxes. Algebra doesn’t tend to be very useful when changing the oil in my car— although, I was really, unbelievably bad at algebra so maybe it would be helpful with car mechanics if I could just figure out what freaking x equals!

That being said, there are practical life lessons they teach that are valuable to have. Who knew? Teachers knew that’s who. They also know that half (or maybe most) of the battle is getting kids to listen and engage with the material in the first place. Giving kids adequate incentive to do so is a feat that my teacher friends tell me is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

“But we have grades!” You might insist. “A through F and we all want A’s don’t we?” When that isn’t specific enough pluses and minuses can be added to these letters to further clarify whether you should feel slightly more or slightly less than adequate.

The earliest record of a letter-grade system comes from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897 and they used to have an E too! (It’s also mentioned in the Harvard archives that a B grade was given to a student in 1883, but no evidence of a complete system of grading.)

I do not pretend to know how to navigate the complicated world that is the education system but I’d agree if someone who does navigate it on a daily basis said that some time between 1897 and now, the luster wore off of A’s and A+’s.

For this reason teachers and other experts in education and are working on alternative incentives for kids to do the work they dole out – and not just to do it, but to enjoy and absorb it. If kids like the work they have to complete they’re more likely to enter the dreaded school building in the first place; truancy rates drop, kids get better grades. So if grades won’t do it what will? Might we try enlisting the help of an unexpected source? To the gaming consoles, Batman!

Nick Pelling coined the term “gamification” in 2002, though it did not enter popular usage until 2010. Gamification is what it sounds like. It’s making a game out of something that isn’t one. Or it’s the use of game-thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts in order to engage users and solve problems.

In a corporate setting gamification might mean offering up a bigger bonus to a person who goes the extra mile or creating a leader board so coworkers can engage in some friendly competition in the interest of achieving an agreed upon goal.

In a delicious setting it might mean getting a punch card filled at your favorite coffee spot so on your tenth purchase you get a free scone!

Gamification in a classroom setting in the simplest terms means implementing an incentive based design. I know it’s disappointing that it doesn’t mean going to school to do this. Even if it’s not about stomping on goombas and finding cold coins all day long, it can mean something like this.

A teacher friend of mine recently expressed some sadness at the fact that every year her students seem to be getting better at spatial problems and other things that might require a similar mindset, as that of a video game, but worse at other things. They won’t sit still or be able to critically examine a Shakespeare play. While that’s a bold assertion to make, it’s an interesting one.  Too often the interests and skills kids develop outside of the classroom (i.e. being a master at Minecraft) aren’t so practical once they sit at their desk.

Kids, in part because of growing up in a plugged in culture, are in fact quite good at gaming and at processing visual and spatial info. Luckily educators are also getting better at using that kind of intelligence to teach all kinds of material. The thinking is: why not use the strengths of our students to our advantage? Besides that, games are fun! If you can make math enjoyable, you will retroactively become my favorite person of all time.

Achieving this through gamification can mean anything from implementing the use of games to making the class itself a game.  Techniques include the use of:

Achievement badges

Students don’t get to walk around with a big A on their chests (the good, less Hester Prynnie kind). Badges are a way to do that.  They are a visual representation of a student’s accomplishments.

Foursquare Nerd Merit Badges

Achievement levels

Technically, moving up a grade at the end of the school year is achieving a new level but breaking that into smaller achievement levels in the classroom is a way to create small incentives. These incentives keep students interested in the material. It helps keep momentum going. If all you see as the light at the end of the tunnel is the big unknowable 5th grade you might lose interest/focus/concentration but if there are other goals to reach along the way, it makes getting to 5th grade that much easier and more interesting.

Leader boards

In my niece’s preschool class there was a “Zipper Club” board. When you can zip your own coat your name goes up on the board and let me tell you, the pride on that kid’s face was pretty incredible when she showed me her name (Finally! Hey zippers can be tricky.)

Visual meters

Any mark of progress kids can see. This might mean a progress bar that gets colored in the closer you come to completing a task or having an avatar move up a ladder. These can be themed. For instance, if you’re teaching geography perhaps the kids’ avatars have to make it from one end of the country to another. This works for the same reason that we as a species for some reason enjoy coloring in hand drawn thermometers to mark an increasing monetary amount. We like to see our progress… and to use smelly Sharpie markers.

Virtual currency

Any system for awarding and redeeming points received for accomplishing goals. Monopoly money or handmade classroom bucks would work well here as currency that can be redeemed for goods. These students are doing hard work! They deserved to get paid!

Challenges between users

A little friendly competition goes a long way. In my own experience with this I either have kids form two teams or, if it’s a smaller group, I have them form one team and I make up the other team. That way they feel a sense of camaraderie with each other but can still engage in competition. One example might be “If (enter student team name here… usually something involving zombies, superheroes, or other awesomeness) can accomplish all the skills I’ve written on the board by the end of class I “lose” and will let team “Zombie Cheetah Spiderman” have ten extra minutes of free play time.

Embedding small games within other activities.

Making an assignment itself a game can be a good way to get kids interested. Think game boards instead of plain old worksheets and here is where you can institute video games.

I think, especially in recent years, there has been a push to create a classroom that fits the kids and not the other way around.  Gaming in the classroom may not be the best teaching model for every child (some kids do well with tests or lectures or traditional group work) but it’s an effort that creatively goes beyond just having a smart board.


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