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 1: Formative Assessment

Once we were n00bs - rookies - green. Level 1; we didn't know all that much...we needed a lot of practice just to execute the basics. We progressed from start area to start area, doing what we needed to to buff our skills and improve. We figured out how to get the job done by ourselves and as a team. We had to keep learning, over and over again sometimes. Falling back, figuring it out. Step by step the bosses fell, but rarely on the first pass...and they were little bosses. The big ones were coming. And when we encountered them, they were challenging. Many of us fell; we wiped a lot. But we learned from what didn't work and again, we improved. At long last, we learned enough to progress to the final boss and with skill, knowledge, teamwork, collaboration and hard work, we prevailed!

 It's been a few weeks now since my first experiment in building a fully gamified classroom came to an end. Now that I've had an opportunity to consider the experience, both from my own perspective as a teacher but from the students' perspective (through interviews and discussions after the class ended), I have 10 take-aways that will help you as you consider gamifying your own classroom. Like any classroom experience, some things went quite well, others less so. These reflections come directly from these experiences. My philosophy of instruction is design-based...we're never going to learn anything about curriculum and instruction unless we're making research-based consideration of new approaches and learning how to "fail up." In this series of reflections, I will look at the following topics:

  • Level 1: Formative Assessment
  • Level 2: Student Self-Direction
  • Level 3: Theorycrafting Knowledge Trees
  • Level 4: Theorycrafting the Intregration of Knowledge and Skills
  • Level 5: Achievements
  • Level 6: Cognitive Load
  • Level 7: Thoughts on How Students Value and Perceive "Learning"
  • Level 8: Competition
  • Level 9: Scope, Timing, Scale
  • Level 10: Slaying the Boss

There's hardly anything about a gamified classroom that works the same way as a method or approach would work in a non-gamified classroom (constructivist or behaviorist). The single best reason to use a game-based planning model is in the area of formative assessment. We all know how important formative assessment is in understanding what one's students know and can do. We also know how difficult it can be to formatively assess. There is a long tradition in American education to focus our assessment efforts on end-of-unit or end-of-year summative assessments. Moreover, formative assessment is made harder the larger one's class is, the most complex the skill in question is and whether there are technology tools available to help the teacher conduct formative assessment. Formative assessment's purpose is to inform the teacher and the student on a class by class (or indeed minute by minute) basis as to their growth and performance. Very difficult to achieve.

Easier to achieve, though, in the gamified classroom. Easier to achieve not by happenstance or good luck but by design. There are three reasons why you should consider gamifiying your classroom if you're interested in formative assessment:

  • The Nature of Levels and Leveling: Because the gamified classroom structures the ways in which students learn knowledge into clear and explicit levels, each of which builds on the other, it is incumbent upon the teacher and the student to measure student understanding much more regularly. There's no reason a student should move to level 2 until they have demonstrated command of level 1. In this regard, a gamified classroom works very similar to a game. Players make regular decisions based on the second-by-second feedback they get in game and they are required to demonstrate mastery of a particular piece of knowledge or skill before they're allowed to go to the next area.
  • Student Accountability: Let's face it. One of the challenges in building formative assessment structures in classrooms is simply how hard it is to manage an effective system. In a gamified classroom, students are personally accountable for their progress through the course and the curriculum. They need you, but they don't need you every minute. They need your guidance when they need it, not when you want to give it and they need you accessible. Rather than being a distant figure, in a gamified classroom, you as the teacher assume a role closer to that of Yoda or Gandalf - the older and wiser guide. The more explicitly you place yourself in that role, in fact, the more apt students will be to cast themselves as Luke Skywalker or Frodo - in short, as the hero.
  • Student Engagement: What makes gamers love gaming? The regular feedback I mentioned above. There's a real sense of achievement when you outrace your opponent and cross the finish line first or are the first person on your server in a big MMO to kill a big boss or accomplish an otherwise brutal task. The way that games give players feedback builds commitment on the part of the gamer to continue. The same is true in a gamified classroom. Students responded to the realization that they'd accomplished something when they completed a level, particularly a boss level.

In the next installment, I will look more closely at how the gamified classroom devleops student self-direction.

It Isn't the Game, It's the Gamification, Part 2

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

Online Colleges' infographic makes an alluring, but ultimately unhelpful, argument for educators interested in building gamified curricula, gamified assessments and gamified classrooms. It goes off-track in its busy, fluid middle by seeming to make an argument that the games it cites (like SimCity, Zoombinis or Brain Age) are the best tools upon which learning might be based. I would be careful before asserting that these games have the capacity to teach the complex skills assigned to them in the infographic (and which I discuss in part 1).

Moreover, I am not convinced that these games in-and-of themselves move us closer towards creating empowered, critical thinking 21st century citizens capable of solving the complex problems American and global societies face. Elsewhere I have shared my educational philosophy, but I can cite three main ideas from it here. The purpose of education is:

  • to give young people the capacity to identify and solve any problem to which they might want to devote themselves.
  • to give young people the capacity to make dignified and dignifying life choices confident in their self identity.
  • to participate effectively in democratic society.

Do games do this? Like the infographic suggests, games might help contribute to these objectives. But the games are not the important part of the story, really. Dig deeper! What is it that these games share with each other? What makes the experience of playing Civilization V, Angry Birds, The Sims so rewarding that people spend millions of hours doing it? Strip away the games and what are you left with? The metagame if you will - that which is part of the game, but beyond it. That which derives from the game, which you can use in the game, but isn't really part of the game. Far more important than the games themselves is this metagame, the gamification that these games can inspire us to bring to our classrooms and schools.

We have to use games as source material for understanding gamified curricula and the gamified classroom. They can inspire us to structure students' learning experiences in radically innovative ways. Thinking carefully about the games that we play and how they function as games, we can reach out to students in ways that they would understand intuitively on the metagame level, reinforcing commitment to learning without relying on the potentially dubious value of the games themselves. After all, as great as World of Warcraft is as a game, I really have no interest in helping students learn how to master Inscription, solve a puzzle at the end of an epic quest line or find that last piece of awesome loot. But the game theory embedded in the game itself? That can power lots of classroom experiences if it can be understood.

So, what are the game principles embedded in these games' metagames that we might use to gamify our classrooms? Here are three ideas.

Self-Direction: One of the great qualities of all of these games is that they are under the player's control. The pathways forward, whether they lead to a win or loss, are the player's responsibility. Gamified curricula will lean towards an epic win if they are structured to give students control over the pathways they follow as they learn how to think critically, process information and solve problems. Furthermore, curricula that embeds self-direction into the day-to-day work encourages student ownership and the ability to manage projects.

Make It Count: Great games have ways of acknowledging player successes, particularly if they have an online or multiplayer component. I have found that the achievement system I set up in my America 3.0 class this year is one of the things that has gone better than expected in gamifying that course.

Make It Doable, But Only Just: Every game in the flow chart has this at its core - it can be played, but at the beginning of the experience, it's really hard! Surely if you've played Tetris at some point you know what I'm talking about. Translate that into your classrooms and your curricula. And don't be afraid to dial back the challenge if you've got it pegged to high.


Gamifying and "Doing"

In my previous posts, I shared some of the ideas I have been thinking about as I redesign a course I am teaching to be explicitly gamified. One of the crucial decisions I made at an early stage was to divide the work process (the quest lines) into two distinct trees. In my last post, I shared an example of the knowledge tree. In any course, there is content that students should learn and master. There are also skills that a student should learn and master. In both cases, the pathways through the content and skills must be student-directed.

A critical difference between the knowing tree and the doing tree is that students do not earn "points" for completing quests in the knowing tree. Knowing serves itself; it is for its own sake. Doing, however, can be measured.

The doing tree is divided into six branches: critical reading, critical writing, critical speaking, modeling, collaborating and integrating. The doing tree for writing looks like this:


Critical Writing - one foundation of expression (where one cites)
Short, short form - tweeting
     one very simple idea
Short form - blog postings (200-500 words) or the 2 minute movie
     one simple idea, explicated
Medium form - the short paper, the "long blog" (1000-2000 words), the 7 minute movie
     one complex idea, explicated with depth
Long form - the long paper (2000+ words), the webpage, the 20 minute movie
     one highly complex idea, explicated along multiple arcs
And this is just one mode students might use to share what they are thinking. Like in the knowing tree, students will be obligated to complete a certain number of tasks in each branch of the doing tree as well, but will be rewarded significantly more by completing more complex tasks or repeating tasks. Rather than using an explicit level system as I am doing in the knowing tree, I am thinking of using something closer to an achievement system in the doing tree, with students earning achievement points (similar to the achievement point system in World of Warcraft, a system I know pretty well) and then tying those achievement points to the students' ultimate grade in the class.
In my next post, I will share how I am thinking of making the connection between levels, points and grades clear.


Gamifying Education - Theory and Practice

In recent months, stimulated by provocative books like Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken," numerous blog posts and my own experience as a board gamer (think "Fresco," not "Monopoly") and massively multiplayer online roleplayer (MMO) in World of Warcraft, I have become more firmly convinced that course design (and indeed curriculum design) could be and should be informed by the same thinking that makes games so powerfully motivating for their players. This thinking is already in evidence at schools like Quest to Learn, where the curriculum is intensively gamified.

In the coming year, I will be testing this hypothesis in a class I teach called "America 3.0,"  a course in which high school seniors study the history of the United States, more or less, from 1970 to the present. In the past, I have structured the learning experience of the course conventionally, with me setting the learning expectations, directing students along a single, narrow path and telling only one story. For the coming year, I will be gamifying the students' experience, bringing lessons from the board game and MMO world to bear on students' learning. My intention is to open the study of American history to student choice, allowing them to develop a core understanding of the period while requiring them to make a deep commitment to learning a particular facet of the American experience. I make the following assumptions going into the course design experience:

Choice: As the course designer, my responsibility is to provide a meaningful, understandable and compelling structure that will stimulate and engage. Once I as designer have constructed the system, all subsequent choices are made by the students themselves.

Facilitation: If the design is effective, I have fundamentally and unalterably changed my own role in the classroom. If each student could be (and is likely to be) exploring a different "quest line," it is not possible to use my comfort zone mode (lecture/discussion) for classroom instruction. Rather, I will need to be a "benevolent guide," helping students understand and interpret what they are learning, so that they can make better use of it as the progress along the quest line they have selected.

Leveling and "Quest Lines": A critical component of the MMO experience is leveling. Players level by completing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined quest lines that become progressively more difficult as players gain skills, knowledge and capacity to play their character. In order to be successful, the students' experience in class has to be based on leveling as well.

"Level Bosses": A key component of video gaming is the "boss kill" or "boss win," - a big challenge that comes at the end of a series of smaller challenges. The leveling experience of the course had to have "boss wins" that would stimulate integrated and critical thinking.

Knowing and Doing: The core misunderstanding in our national obsession with high-stakes testing is that it places most of its values in the realm of knowing, rather than balancing knowing with doing. I entered the design process for this class seeking balance, but frankly valuing the doing more than the knowing. I argue that knowledge in a vacuum doesn't do anyone much good really. Rather, once students understand something, what can they do with it? I will present students with the following formula: Knowing levels ask students to demonstrate that they know X about Y. Doing levels ask students to demonstrate that they can acquire knowledge X in a particular way or transmit or pass on their knowledge X  of Y in a particular way Z.

Level 100: The students' end-goal in the course is no longer to "get an A." Rather, the object is to achieve level 100. Students reach level 100 by completing  objectives in two quest lines: knowing and doing. My hope here is to explicitly decouple the experience of being in class and learning with the high-stakes reality of grading. By stating the object of the course in this way, I hope to provide incentive to students to work hard and skillfully, while providing a space for students with lower self-efficacy to achieve at the highest possible level, with the highest possible claims on their own motivation.

In developing the students' leveling experience, I have made a number of decisions that about the structure of the course:

Knowing: The six branches of the knowing trunk are: Social Change and Reaction, Culture, Politics in the Age of Reagan, Foreign Policy (Facing Down the Soviets and the Discontents of Hegemony), Economics/Finance/Labor/Industry and Technology. Students will have the opportunity to level each of these knowing trunks from 1-100. The course requires that they level all areas to at least 10, 3 of the 6 to 20, 2 of the 6 to 50 and 1 to 100. Students do not earn any "gradable points" for the work they do here. Rather, they use what they acquire on these quests to "do."

Doing: The doing trunk also branches six ways: reading, critical writing, critical speaking, modeling, collaborating and integrating. Students will earn achievement points by completing doing tasks/quests that are progressively more difficult. I define reading as the principle process by which one attains knowledge (and that lots of things can be treated as "reading," like studying architecture, conducting interviews, etc. - that which is read is that which is cited). Critical writing, speaking and modeling are examples of where one cites (modeling is defined as non-written modes of non-speaking expression, like infographics or photography). Collaborating asks students to form ALTs (accountable learning teams) by which students will work together to solve complex problems (like level 90 and 100 boss wins), construct shared group learning identities and hold each other to appropriate standards. Integrating asks students to mashup or meld learning from multiple branches of knowing (like studying how the foreign policy and culture strands of knowing might be mutually reinforcing) or multiple branches of doing.

 In my next post, I will share the first ten levels of each of the knowledge branches and an example of a level 100 boss win.