Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Gamification of the Classroom?

It seems that lately I'm hearing about gamification (applying the mechanics of gaming) of everything, including education. My initial reaction was wary, since gaming and education have different core objectives (entertainment and learning respectively). However, reading this article on 'Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design', I couldn't help but think of the similarities between its discussion of feedback and my ideas of what makes good assessment.

This has inspired me to think about gamification and what features of game design it may be useful to apply to teaching. This is just an open thought experiment, so if you have anything to add, or disagree with, please let me know. Note that as well as the article mentioned above, I will also reference "Creating Flow, Motivation & Fun in Learning Games".

Characteristic 1: Games should have concrete goals with manageable rules.

This seems a fairly obvious statement when applied to the classroom. Pupils are generally happier when they know what is expected of them and its why there is so much emphasis from OFSTED about making learning objectives (L.O.s) and outcomes clear throughout the lesson. Ways to achieve this:
  • Make the goals plainly comprehensible in every part of the lesson. This could include linking explanations, questions and assessments to the L.O.s. Particularly useful may be the questions, so that 'if you can do these questions then you have met this L.O.'.
  • Goals and new skills need to be introduced with a minimum of distractions.
  • Time should be taken to train the pupil on new skills in a low risk environment (e.g. when you get the Gravity Gun in Half-Life you first use it to play fetch with dog). Traditionally this is achieved by examples and practice questions. You could also use group activities where pupils can confirm each other's correct answers.
  • 'The completion of small goals (e.g., clearing a field of boars) links to larger goals (e.g., getting enough XP to level up), which in turn link to even larger goals (e.g., getting access to level-specific gear). This linkage creates a series of rewarding experiences that can hook gamers to a game and create the goal-achievement-reward cycle.' This link is certainly present in education; learning skills, connecting with other skills, enabling a higher test score etc., which all links to your final exams. I do think though that this link is not always clear. Sharing standards achieved and how it links to termly reports etc. (see SBG) would be one way of doing this. Another link which I will talk about more below is the link between classwork and 'maths in the real world'.

Characteristic 2: Games should only demand actions that fit within a player's capabilities.

This is obviously desirable, particularly with pupils who lack confidence, but is not always easy to acheive in a class of 30+. Use of optional support and extension tasks can help to find the right difficulty, as can rich tasks, which allow for multiple entry points and investigation. This is similar to the game design idea of Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.

Other things mentioned are how games should 'avoid introducing a lot of skills at the same time', 'avoid the tendency to over-specify', sticking only to the most important parts, and 'start out simple, with minimal information, and add in new data as needed'.

Characteristic 3: Games should give clear and timely feedback on player performance.

This is what initially caught my attention as a lot of SBG is about creating the opportunity for timely and useful feedback, and in fact people have already discussed its similarities to game systems. Its also what I like about Kate Nowak's Row games, because pupils get almost instant feedback on each question. Its also something that computer apps, such as this excellent algebraic equations app, are capable of achieving.

This section also mentions setting up feedback systems from the start and maintaining them. This is something I've had trouble with in the past and am currently trying to focus on being more consistent with merits, etc.

Characteristic 4: Games should remove any extraneous information that inhibits concentration.

This links to Dan Meyer's discussion of pseudocontext, where he invites you to ask whether the context adds anything to the problem or just disguises it.

Getting people to repeat tasks.

Repetition is obviously conducive to learning, but its sometimes hard to get pupils to perservere when they don't immediately understand. Here are some ways that games can do it:
  • Most games simply let players 'try again' without any stigma attached. This is harder to achieve in a classroom, but it probably starts with encouraging a "growth mindset" culture that embraces initial difficulties, like this 'favourite no' idea.
  • 'Give the player enough feedback so they can figure out how to improve their performance the next time.' This can be achieved through direct instruction and questioning or group/peer work. Its also another stated aim of SBG.
  • 'Allow players to skip excessive and meaningless repetition of the same skill. Focus on skills related to the learning objectives, let the player know when they succeeded, and move on.' Having a harder task that pupils can move on to when they feel they've mastered the basics. Dan's version of SBG has pupils skip problems they already have evidence of mastery with. This is something that I really feel needs improvement in schools. For example, a popular answer to the question 'When Will I Ever Use This????' seems to be that pupils should treat math class like brain training, like how a footballer does weights. However, where is the motivation if you never actually get them to play football? The gaming equivalent would be a computer game that was just one long tutorial. Functional maths tasks and Dan Meyer's 3Acts/WCYDWT problems are a couple of ways to address this. Here, you are applying maths in unmistakably real-world situations. They may be hand picked to be simple enough for pupils to understand, but they do not feel contrived and because they have multiple entry points and solution strategies, they allow pupils to 'play' with the skills they have learned.
  • 'Make the repeated task feel different each time around. This means providing choices, actions, and control so that the player can become engaged in a similar but slightly different experience. Alternately, the next time around, the process should go much faster. This allows them to enjoy the experience of mastery over previously challenging content.' This one has stumped me. Though it sounds entirely applicable to education, I can't really think of ways to do it. Any help on this?