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 3: Theorycrafting Knowledge

Level 3? We got this...now wait a minute...this doesn't make sense...what are we doing here? How're we ever going to get to that boss if we can't figure out what's at the heart of this level? What is this designer trying to do anyway? 

I just finished reading Bonnie A. Nardi's My Life As a Night Elf Priest, a sophisticated piece of ethnography in the emerging literature on cultures formed and sustained primarily in digital spaces, in this case, by players and guilds within the game World of Warcraft. In this book, she has a chapter on a practice within the game that players call "theorycrafting." She defines theorycrafting in World of Warcraft as "the discovery of rules that cannot be determined by play." (175)

For the purposes of creating a gamified classroom, it is clear that what both teachers and students need to do is to think like theorycrafters. This might sound straightforward. It isn't. It does speak to the fundamental questions that confront us as educators trying to make sense of 21st century change, 21st century curricula, 21st century skills and the Dan Pink / Ken Robinson challenge. Both Pink and Robinson speak about the need to infuse creativity into learning and I don't disagree. But at the heart of my teaching practice isn't creativity the way that Pink and Robinson might define it (though maybe I'm wrong here?), but rather the creativity that lies at the heart of sophisticated thinking. 

In an earlier post, I alluded to the practice, as I understood it at the time, of constructing a system of levels which my students would use to learn in a 21st century, gamified classroom. I was teaching a course called America 3.0, which attempted to confront students with critical questions about the history of this country in the last 20-40 years. I was partially successful, though not completely so. As the creator of the system of knowledge that I wanted students to explore, I was attempting to create precisely that - a system that built layer by layer, like an onion, to expand students' capacity not to know these levels (because that was only part of the story, and not the most important part - after all, students didn't earn any points for knowing things), but to use that knowledge to answer critical questions (in game terms - to slay bosses).

I was not, am not and won't be interested in the knowledge that students acquire for its own sake. Society has moved on. This isn't something I want to measure. Rather, what can students do with knowledge that they have or that they find? This is where the theorycrafting comes in. What lies unstated in the knowledge? What does the network emphasize or obscure? What's buried in there that needs teasing out? This is the work of theorycrafters in the game, and the work of theorycrafting within a gamified classroom.

As a teacher planning a course, I committed myself in the planning stage to not give students only one approach through the knowledge of America's history since 1970. This is an example of a "rule that cannot be determined by play." I was imparting to my students an experience that reinforces my belief that knowledge is systematic, interdisciplinary and networked. Moreover, by not giving students the currency of the realm, points, for doing work in the knowledge trees, I was emphasizing this quality.

The level 100 boss in the Culture Knowledge Tree read: In the transition from America 1.0 to America 2.0, major disruptions in social relations and "social truth" led to the widespread adoption and embrace of fringe cultural practices. In many cases, these fringe practices died out (Fourierism), but in other cases, they survived into our own age (Christian Science). Trace the phenomenon of cultural resistance to the mainstream and/or the emergence of cultural anxiety in the transition from America 2.0 to America 3.0, and speculate based on reason and sound evidence about the likely survivability of at least three cultural expressions in 2100. Embedded within this question are notions of the mainstream and notions of the fringe, the Braudelian sense that history is conducted over larger temporal frameworks than students conventionally study in high school history, that social truth might be mutable and that culture has a social dimension. None of these ideas are expressed in the knowledge tree itself.

As a teacher, I tried to construct a learning experience that embedded unstated questions within the questions themselves. My students were therefore confronted with subtleties of criticality that they wouldn't have been had I centered myself at the nexus of learning. I was to the side - my students were at the center, with the KTs that formed the core of their experience. Sophisticated students seemed to get this almost at once and then it became, for them, a part of the game and part of the learning. The less sophisticated students realized that there was something more going on, and if they were partnered with their classmates effectively, they got something from that team. All students were given the opportunity to explore knowledge in different modalities, which was one of the goals of the course development process.

As a teacher thinking about gamifying curriculum, think of these things:

  • What's The Network?: What will your knowledge trees look like and what is embedded within them? What rules of your discipline will inform knowledge? How will your students make sense of what you've constructed?
  • Who's the Boss?: Central to the theorycrafter's task is trying to find the rules that are not explicitly stated. What is the knowledge that isn't explicitly stated? How can you point students to that knowledge in your boss questions?
  • Where's The Truth?:  Theorycrafters are keen to unpack assumptions and test them. Can you think of ways to structure questions to specifically validate the theorycrafting impulse and, as an added benefit, reveal the perspectives hidden within your questions?
  • Why Should I Care?: Well constructed levels should give students the ability to see connections between discrete fields of knowledge. How you encourage them to build this network of understanding speaks to the fundamental task of 21st century learning.

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 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.

 

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. 

video-games-are-changing-education.jpg

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.

Learning Teams - A key to the gamified classroom

Towards the end of Sir Ken Robinson's thought-provoking discussion at the RSA (shared here through an awesome "animate" - a technique that is both awe-inspiring and just plain cool), he makes a critical point for anyone thinking about building a game-based curriculum and teaching in a gamified classroom. He says "...there's one answer, and it's in the back. And don't look. And don't copy! Because that's cheating. Outside schools, that's called collaboration. This isn't because teachers want it this way; it's because it happens that way. It's in the gene pool of education." And he couldn't be more right. Collaboration is a critical skill in the 21st century workplace and if our public discourse over the last few years teaches us anything, it is an essential skill that needs serious development in the American and global citizenry of the future. But how is that skill built in the gamified classroom?

One of the challenges facing a teacher who wants to build a collaborative culture in their classrooms is the simple fact of creating teams. Any teacher knows that grouping students is fraught with difficulties. Good teachers ask (but struggle to answer) questions like: Should I group students of like ability together or group students so that students with differing abilities work together? Should I group hard working students with students who are not? How do I measure the work the students do? Grade it? Can I group students and issue the group a grade? And if not, how do I grade individuals? What does it look like to grade an individual working in a group? And so on. Many great teachers resist having students work together not because it's educationally unsound (it's not), but because these questions resist easy answers.

In America 3.0, my solution to it is to create a systemic approach to student-created groups that they can work in (if they wish) to solve complex problems like Boss questions together (and submit work together for group leveling and group doing.) I call these groups ALTs, or accountable learning teams. Students who enroll in an ALT must complete an ALT charter in which the students create group norms that they agree to adhere to and which they police (with my assistance if necessary).

 The beauty of this system (I hope, no students have yet formed an ALT) is that students are self-accountable and that the will of the group should maintain a certain quality of work and effort so that the group continues to level and do good work. I believe this system is possible because this classroom doesn't have grades, per se, and therefore, all of the morass of grading cited above doesn't enter into the discussion.

I include below the "team charter" instructions that students have to address themselves to before I will allow them to submit work as a team. I owe a big debt to Dr. Linda Rose and the Educational Leadership Program at UCLA for this team charter. It is essentially the team charter that Dr. Rose uses in her Action Research class with graduate students. As a graduate student, I was in an action research team and used this team charter with my fellow students with great success.

 

ALT CHARTER

An accountable learning team (ALT) is one of the ways you can productively collaborate in America 3.0. By design, an accountable learning team gives you as students a cohort of like-minded students who have agreed to work together according to a set of rules to which you all agree. Before you can do any work together as an ALT, you must submit an ALT charter to me, discuss it with me and get it approved by me. If you do, you can then submit work to me as an ALT.

To charter an ALT, you must come to a common understanding of your goals and ground rules. Groups can consciously create common understandings and norms. The purpose of the charter is to give your group the most potential for success by developing these common understandings and norms. Write this charter as a group and submit it to me for consultation.

Answer the following questions:

1. What is your ALT's name?

2. Who is in your ALT?

3. When and where will you meet outside of class? Who will organize these meetings?

4. Will you have an agenda for these meetings or for how you use in-class time? If so, who is responsible for developing it? Who will keep the minutes? Who will keep track of action items?

5. What will you do if a team member is responsible for distractions during a meeting?

6. What is the procedure your ALT will use to deal with members who miss meetings, don't read email or Schoology or are late?]

7. How will you make decisions? By consensus? Majority voting?

8. What will you do if a member does not fulfill his or her ALT responsibilities? What will you do if the work of one of the team's members does not meet the standards of other members?

9. How will you resolve conflict within the group? What resources do you have and how will you use them?

10. What steps will you take if a member of your group commits academic misconduct or behaves unethically? Consider the full range of ethical issues.


Why Achievements Are Essential to Gamification

By design, students in my America 3.0 class this year have to earn achievements (special awards for reaching certain milestones, taking unusual approaches to their learning, doing an important or interesting thing a number of times or for building a portfolio of learning/doing in a compelling way). Unlike the acquisition of knowledge or the development of an assortment of  "do's," I haven't published what the achievements are. Students have to think outside the box, experiment, try new modes of thinking and new ways of demonstrating mastery. All of this points to one of the key qualities of the gamified classroom: student self-direction.

In the gamified classroom, students have to take responsibility for their own learning, just like a player has to take responsibility for their strategy or their approach to a game. In World of Warcraft, for example, players can reach level 85 (the maximum possible level in the current iteration of the game) in an almost bewildering number of ways. Most players level through a few core mechanics (questing, 5-man instances), but there is nothing preventing a player from leveling exclusively through crafting (using in-game materials to make in-game items that confer some benefit) and never playing whole parts of the game. In the game, though, there are achievements, special rewards, that form their own metagame within the game. Achievements give structure, sometimes, to the game work that players do and lend direction to the efforts that players want to undertake. Some achievements are really quite easy to earn, others are vexingly difficult (because they represent doing something that's just plain hard to do or because they require "grinding" - doing one thing hundreds of times over and over).

I set up the achievements requirement in the hopes that it would stimulate creative thinking in the context of student self-direction. Today, in our fifth class, I had the evidence that the achievement system was going to have the desired effect (at least with some students).

I arrived to class and a student was tuning her violin. Her classmates were attentive to what she was doing, but weren't obsessive about it. I cocked an eyebrow and the student said "I want to earn an achievement!" I nodded and asked her to explain what the violin had to do with anything! After all, a player doesn't earn an achievement for something random - it has to mean something. It has to connect. The student said "Janis Joplin." I asked her what level she was talking about, just to be clear. She said, Culture, level 1. I said "I'm not sure where you're going with this, but let's hear it."

She played for about 90 seconds with skill after which I asked her to make her Janis Joplin point explicit. She cited the story about Joplin's free spirited approach to life at the University of Texas and remarked that Joplin carried an instrument around campus in the event that she wanted to play. We discussed free-spiritedness as a quality of the culture of the 60s, as compared to the more "square" (her word) culture of the 50s. Her classmates nodded with understanding.

And I gave her a class first achievement for using a prop to illustrate a point and told her to keep leveling.