Gamification? Hmmm let me think about that…

There has been a lot in the blogosphere lately about gamification. In the context of this post it involves using techniques common to computer games to promote engagement in school classrooms. This is distinct from game-based learning, which uses computer games as the medium to deliver the curriculum.

Gamification is defined as:

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

So how do we gamify our classroom learning. The web site list the following methods for gamifying activities:

  • Add points to tasks that need to be completed
  • Define badges/rewards to be given out after a criteria is met
  • Create a Leaderboard to show top performers
  • Define levels to repeat tasks or to perform harder tasks
  • Earning of badges can be tied to unlocking higher levels

In a modern calssroom we usually try to avoid an excessively competative environment. As a result the practical application of gamification in a classroom generally involves establishing an ecology of digital badges which students can work towards. These badges are connected to learned competencies and students can progress through them and often combine them to achieve ‘higher’ badges. The badges can be collected and shared.

This presents a picture of students engaged in their learning as they collect badges and show them proudly to their peers and family. Activity doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity, however, and I can see some potential dangers in this.

The first issue is touched on in the last words of the definition above. “…motivate people to achieve their goals.” I love learning. I am 56 years old (shhhh…) and I still get joy out of learning new things. I wish my students were the same. When I am speaking to a disengaged student about their progress I often ask,

“What is your aim in maths class? What are you there to achieve?”

Typically the answer is,

“I want to pass maths.”

“Wrong”, I say, “if your aim is to pass then no wonder you are bored and struggling. Your aim should be to improve your maths, then if you pass or fail you are a winner and you will likely pass anyway.”

Unfortunately our system has made collectors out of many students. They collect subjects and if they can collect them easily with a minimum of learning then that is fine. If we gamify the classroom a student with that attitude will simply start collecting badges. They may collect a lot of them, but they will do this by completing badges quickly and moving on without necessarily retaining much along the way.

Now to my second concern. During my teacher training I learned about “token economies”. These are Pavlovian systems where students are rewarded for a desired behaviour with a token or reward. In this way the desired behaviour becomes more frequent. The problem with this is that sooner or later the rewards have to stop and if the underlying reason for the undesireable behaviour isn’t addressed, the student will revert back again.

Looking at gamification with badges, we need to ask ourselves what happens when the student stops getting badges, or the law of diminishing returns nullifies the reward? Will they just stop learning? In  other words the gamifiation has helped the student through a few years of education, but it has not addressed their underlying attitude to learning and they have not become innovative learners in the sense of 21st century skills.

In conclusion, I don’t want you to think I am against digital badgeing or gamification. I just think that we need to be very careful how we implement it. Gamification is effective only when the game is learning, if the game becomes badge collecting then the badges become a distraction from deep learning. How do we ensure this? Well I did say I needed to think about it.



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