Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 4: Theorycrafting Doing

Level 4 - new territory. We've figured out the basics (at least we think we have) but to this point, we haven't been put to the test. There's the road - out of our safe home. The road that leads to new places, new adventures and the real challenges that will push us to the limits of what we know and can do.

In my previous post, I discussed how theorycrafting (a practice gamers use to understand unstated realities and rules in videogames by vigorously studying data derived from playing the game) can be applied by teachers in developing gamified curricula. Specifically, I wrote about knowledge. In this post, I will expand on the idea of theorycrafting by looking at "doing."

In constructing the course my students experienced last semester, I was concerned not just about what students would know about America's history after 1970, but what they could do with that knowledge. When it comes to the notion that we live in a world where what knowledge is has fundamentally changed, I don't need to be convinced. I'm onboard. Having said that, I am not (and wasn't) arguing that there is no need for students to know anything. Rather, I am no longer interested in them knowing content for its own sake.

What is at the heart of the gamified classroom is this next step. OK - you know something. So what? What are you going to do with it? That is where the "doing trees" for this course came in. As a teacher of seniors, I thought that I could make the doing trees highly open-ended, giving the students the opportunity to make choices about what skills they'd like to demonstrate mastery of. There were two problems with this fundamental assumption: 

  • Capacity - some students, confronted with the number of choices I offered, shut down and needed regular guidance to make decisions. Some students were essentially paralyzed by having to make choices. Others did better with the notion of choice, but had to be cajoled to go outside their comfort zone.
  • Choice-Aversion - some students had what I can only call "choice aversion." Confronted with the requirement that they make decisions about how they wanted to demonstrate mastery, they would prevaricate between one, two or many. These students, once they made their decision, would treat their decision to write and deliver a speech or to make a Twitter feed as though it were a delicate and precious orchid. No intellectual rough-and-tumble here, which is what I was expecting and designed the course to facilitate.

 The same rules that apply to gamifying knowledge apply to gamifying 21st century skills. What do you want your students to be able to master over the time they're with you. In my case, I gave too many choices in too many hierarchies. It overwhelmed my students ability to make good choices. This reality was reinforced in my colleagues' work on gamifying their classrooms. Too many "doing trees" shut down student experimentation. This has to be balanced with a core concept in gamification - namely, that choice and self-direction is to be valued for its ability to generate flow in the learning experience. Not an easy task.

In my next post, I will discuss one of the key take-aways I had from my experience gamifying my classroom, namely, the critical role an achievement system played in bolstering student choice, self-direction and enjoyment of the learning game.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 2: Students and Self-Direction

Who knew getting to that final boss would be so hard? Once we got out of the start zone, there were so many different directions in which we could go. Our team got sort of lost. It really took some effort, and the realization that that final boss wasn't going to kill himself, to get us on the road!

If you're a gamer, you know what I'm referring to above. Unless the game you're playing is rigidly scripted, any degree of the open sandbox can entice you to spend time noodling in the sandbox and less time working on the objectives of the game. There's really only one way to play Frogger. There are many, many strategies to playing a great board game like Acquire, but there's only the one rule set. A game like BioShock is meant to be played in a particular way, despite a certain flexibility of approach, because there's a master narrative. A game like World of Warcraft (or indeed any MMO) has no right way to play because, essentially, there is no winning it. As it goes with these games, so it can go with the gamified classroom. What are you trying to accomplish in terms of student experience. 

I will be writing another post with my colleagues Mike Irwin (who used gamification to teach middle school students) and Nick Holton (who used the method in a tenth grade class) in which I drill much more deeply down into this notion of self-direction and show some powerful student data on this point. When considering whether and how to gamify your classroom, be advised (and I think all three of us would agree here) that student motivation and student capacity for self-direction are things that will need to be high on your list of concerns.

Why does thinking about self-direction and student motivation need to be such an important part of your planning process? Because it figured prominently in all three of our classrooms. In my classroom of twelfth graders, I experienced the following qualities related to student self-direction that needed managing:

Obsession (or, get out of the sandbox!): Students with a high ability to work in a gamified classroom (as demonstrated by the quality of their leveling, their pre-class research capacity and their pre-existing critical thinking skills) could nevertheless find themselves suffering from the "sandbox effect." Becoming overly focused on one aspect of one level and getting stuck was something I observed many times in my students. Many of my early individual interventions were of this variety - helping students make decisions about what could "count" as an example of a particular level, rather than encourage them to stay fixated on one part of one level. This was probably a function of two qualities, one under my control, the other not. First, the way the level structures were assembled made it more likely that students might obsess about details (because the levels were loaded with detail). Second, high school seniors were probably more able to drill down than lower grade students and if their critical thinking short-circuited their decision making to some degree, it would look a bit like obsession.

Low Autonomy: The second problem comes with students who, for whatever reason, have limited experience with self-direction of any kind. There were a handful of students who understood how a game-based classroom worked (they could explain it, for instance) but never really developed much capacity to make decisions within it. It might be that they had only a limited interest in the course content (which I can understand), but it seems far more likely that what I saw was the manifestation of a childhood and adolescence lived under careful observation by parents and my colleagues and where students were not expected to make many decisions. So, when they were put into a learning environment that required decision making (and indeed, success came in large measure from deciding), they had limited capacity. Interesting is the fact that seniors had the most difficulty here, then the tenth graders and then the middle school students. A take-away for me is that the best time to train students to self-direct is probably middle school and that a gamified classroom is one of the very best ways to develop self-direction.

Inconstancy: There were some students who, when asked to work under their own direction, fell victim to laziness, indolence or who took the easiest route forward. I will be considering this point later in this series when I write about competition. I gave myself very few effective tools to manage student inconstancy. And there were examples where excellent students dropped to a lower common denominator when I would have anticipated that they would cause their groups to rise.

Poor Self-Awareness: Some students came to my classroom with a very low awareness of themselves as learners. They didn't know what they found interesting in American history, couldn't make connections between disciplinary branches within history (like between cultural history and political history), couldn't make connections between history and other disciplines and had poor research habits. Be mindful that these students came to their senior year with uniformly excellent grades in history. The problem seemed to be that those great grades were a result of my colleagues measuring very different qualities than I wanted to measure.

If you are going to undertake the gamified classroom in your own practice, make sure you've given some thought to these potential challenges. You'll be the better for it.

In the next installment, "theorycrafting" knowledge and skills.

It Isn't the Game, It's the Gamification, Part 1

This is the first in a two-part response to "How Video Games Are Changing Education," an infographic from Online Colleges. 

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Have you seen Online Colleges' infographic about how video games are changing education before? Easy to understand, visual and accessible, it nevertheless paints only a part of the picture that should matter to someone interested in gamifying classrooms, curricula and education.

The infographic argues that video games enhance student skill development in six areas: problem solving & negotiation, judgment analysis & strategic thinking, communication skills & networking, narrative skills & transmedia navigation, non-linear thinking patterns and improved attention, vision & cognition. Some video games will certainly help learners (be they K-12 age or older...video games aren't just for kids!) in these ways, though I would argue that all sorts of games might do this, not just video games. Moreover, in some cases, non-video games would do a better job of teaching these skills than video games would. For instance, there's really no better game than "Diplomacy" to help students understand and develop their problem solving, strategic thinking and negotiation skills. But this masks a essential problem in the argument and in the development of the gamified classroom; this problem is manifested in the second section of the infographic.

Part 2 of the infographic presents dozens of video games interconnected through a complex "tube map" that suggest relationships and benefits that aren't really there. I'm not sure, for instance, how far you can reasonably push the argument that Minesweeper is a "logic" game. I love Sid Meier's Civilization series of games but the one thing they are not is a "history" game. I can offer no argument whatsoever that Sim City, another game I enjoy, is a game that develops "communication" skills. Games are never required to serve an educational purpose. When they do, however, so much the better! Minesweeper, at least nominally, can help with problem solving and judgment analysis. Civilization is a great game for developing improved attention and strategic thinking. My experience of Sim City always seemed better if I was able to break out of conventional thinking into non-linearity. But at the end of the day, this "tube map," and the facts and statistics that follow it, present more problems than solutions for educators interested in game-based learning when we discuss GBL with our colleagues and the general public.

So, what should we do?

  • Focus on the Learning, Not The Games: We all agree that games are cool! We love playing them! But that doesn't mean that I as a teacher, am ever going to offer Civilization as a substitute for learning history. Ever. Rather, my responsibility as a teacher trying to gamify my classroom is to investigate how Civilization works and incorporate THAT into my classroom. How does it motivate? How does it create the flow-state that's at the heart of game-based success stories?
  • Experiment Thoughtfully: I argued above that Diplomacy is a great game to help students develop their problem solving, strategic thinking and negotiation skills. A lesson about how diplomacy and diplomatic systems in Europe prior to World War I contributed to the war's beginning would definitely be enhanced by playing a few turns of Diplomacy. But it wouldn't make much sense if the game took place before students had some kind of sense of what the game was simulating.
  • Believe: Ample and growing evidence strongly endorses the game-based learning approach to curriculum development, graduation requirements, classroom structure and management, student-centered learning and the creation of learning experiences. It is to these ideas that I will turn in the second part of this series.