Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 7: "But I'm Not Learning..."

Level 7 - wait a minute...this isn't what we signed up for. We're not making any progress...we don't get it!

The most important feedback I received from my students at the end of America 3.0 was one idea split in two parts. Many acknowledged that the way the class was organized felt radically different from what they were used to and that they enjoyed that. Many of these same students (and some of the others who didn't explicitly acknowledge the first part) said point-blank that they felt like they "didn't learn anything." A few of them at a conference attended by my head of school a few months after America 3.0 ended confirmed that there was this sense that while the mechanics of the game-based classroom had merit, there was something so different from conventional instruction that some students simply couldn't process the difference.

What my students didn't understand through the process of taking this class (and which I take the lion's share of the responsibility for) is that the way they had been taught throughout their education had shaped their capacity to experience America 3.0. I had never intended them to experience the class as a typical or conventional learning experience. The one's who were most risk-tolerant, curious and free-thinking were able to see the course for what it was, namely, an opportunity to use pre-existing knowledge and skills to reinforce learning in American life and letters and skills that relate to the job of the professional historian (reading and writing, primarily). Those were were risk-averse, conventional or credentialist saw the course less as an opportunity to build on what they already knew and more as an experience that was fundamentally bewildering.

And lots of reflection followed as I observed my friend and colleague trying the same method with his 8th grade students at a charter school in Detroit. Much to my delight, the data he generated from his students' experiences were quite different from my teaching experience. His students didn't report that they hadn't learned anything. Rather, they felt that for the first time, they had been given autonomy to learn and as a result had learned much more.

So for those of you thinking about gamifying your classrooms, consider the following:

  • The older your students and the more conventional their previous education, the more scaffolding you will need to provide to maximize their experience.
  • Be explicit that your intentions and objectives in the course are different from their previous experiences. I wanted students to learn more about how historians work, how collaboration generates knowledge and how technological tools can enhance learning and collaboration. I didn't explicitly say this...as we all know, don't make assumptions…
  • Remember that learning by doing requires students to be active learners, directing their learning and owning their decisions. For many young people, this is a frightening place to be in school. Teachers have to support student experimentation without setting up a learning environment that is so unusual that disengagement becomes the order of the day.
  • Don't give in to requests to make it more conventional - at the end of the day, your students will get out of your class what they're willing to put in, no matter the form of the class. If you're going to gamify, at least you're maximizing the expectation of engagement.

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.

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.

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.