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.