Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The costs to gamify education

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

In a previous post, I laid out what it means to gamify education (short answer is: incorporate best teaching practices).  If you read that post, it should be pretty clear that those ideas are quite far from our current educational system.  Gamifying education means doing so much more than giving kids badges or points when they turn in homework. It requires a massive overhaul of the structure, values, and philosophy of our school system.

That may sound drastic, and I don’t at all mean to solve the education problem in a two-page blog post.  But I did want to highlight some common classroom practices as a case study, just to emphasize the many ways that they violate gamification principles, and what gamification-friendly solutions might look like.  I’m going to continue using the same delineation from my first post between the Rules (the formal structure of a lesson plan) and Play (the experience created by the implementation of a lesson).

Problem 1: Rules (i.e. restructure your lesson plan)

Cookie Cutter Labs

You know, the ones with a list of instructions that you follow step by step, until you get the answer which is either right or wrong.  The worst ones even have blank spaces for you to write in your data. This is mostly a “rules” problem, but many of these labs are so constrained in their rules that they limit the potential for a good experience. The problems:
  • Little learning by doing-- reading and following instructions is a passive activity
  • Zero agency
  • Not open-ended
  • Not goal-oriented, except in the sense that the goal is to get through the instructions.
  • You are always worried about messing up a step and failing, so they are risk-averse
  • Competence before performance (understand the instructions, THEN do ...)

A potential solution:

Imagine the exact same lab, but instead of saying “measure the gravitational constant by doing A, then B, then C...” it says “Figure out how to measure the gravitational constant, and justify why your measurement is accurate.”

Problem 2: Play (i.e. restructure your classroom practices)

Pop Quizzes

Surprise!  Quiz today. Yuck, right? Let’s not even focus on the Rules, or content of the quiz. Let’s just focus on Play, or the experience of a pop, get-ready-at-any-moment, quiz.
  • It still destroys agency: “Stop what you were planning to do, and take this test.
  • These are really risk averse activities.  You are essentially telling your students that they should be ready to know something at any possible moment, i.e. they should be prepared at all times to demonstrate they are not a failure. The environment should encourage risk taking, rather than stigmatize failure with items like pop quizzes.
  • It’s hard to see a way in which the artificial setting of a pop-quiz really situates meaning.
  • The quizzes can interrupt the build-up of performance by requiring these random displays of competence at any given time.
  • This is also a terrible form of feedback. Feedback should be accompanied readily and consistently as kids are doing an activity. A pop-quiz creates an artificial setting to test knowledge, usually separate from the act of doing, and delays feedback until the teacher can grade and return the quizzes.

A potential solution:

Create a list of questions to be answered as students proceed through their learning.  Let them answer the questions in any order, in their own time. Grade the answers as often as possible-- don’t wait for students to answer all the questions to grade a few of them. Let them fail as much as they like, as long as they produce a right answer eventually. In fact, let them test out answers that they know are wrong to get feedback from you. From your end, students are done with the activity when they demonstrate understanding of every question. If they are done, let them keep exploring.

Problem 3: The meta-structure of school (i.e. removing standards)


That’s right, all of them.  I don’t mean Common Core, or Next Generation Science Standard, or any standard in particular.  I mean the idea that there should be a nationwide standard for learning is by itself anti-gamified education.

Standards basically say “You need to know this knowledge at this point in time in this way.” Gamified learning environments say “You can learn one of these many things eventually, in some way.” This is not a feel-goodery type of “do whatever you want”- it simply encases learning in a format that respects our innate desire to learn. The standards-driven philosophy fails to do so in several ways:
  • No agency, in a completely linear learning path
  • It’s risk-averse: don’t try new things out, just learn what you have to, and do it on time!
  • It’s often not open-ended. I know the current iterations have included less definable skill sets that are meant to be open-ended.  But the vicissitudes of standardized assessments will corrupt these noble intentions and evaluate these open-ended standards in a way that doesn’t truly allow for open-ended solutions. “Do whatever you want, but if you don’t produce an answer that follows this formula you fail” is not the same as “Do whatever you want to get at a solution.”
  • It can be goal- and task-oriented, though it is often implemented in a “do this assignment, then do that assignment” kind of way, rather than a “complete all these tasks.”
  • The true feedback is often offered at the end of the year after you are “done” learning, in a big test, for which your results are delayed due to the logistics of a nationwide testing.  It’s funny, because multiple choice tests can give someone instantaneous feedback.  But the purpose of a standard is not to give students feedback, it’s to test and rank them. Any high-stakes testing will sacrifice student feedback for assessing purposes. How terrible that in this high-stakes environment, where the point of learning is quite literally to pass the test, that students are given almost no feedback on that objective until it’s long past and useless for improving learning.
  • Kids are tested individually: forget distributing knowledge and fostering collaboration.
  • Situated meaning-- when everyone is learning the same thing, it’s hard to situate the meaning in locally or individually relevant contexts.

A potential solution:

Give students challenges, more challenges than they could ever possibly accomplish in one year (like twice as many). Require a certain number of challenges to be accomplished over the year, but let them choose which challenges they want to specialize in. If you really want, you can have a “core competencies” section of the challenge that all students must do (call it a “main storyline”), but make that no more than 25% of all required challenges.  Let students resubmit the answer to challenges as often as they like, until they achieve a success state.  In fact, don’t “grade” the answers at all, just give a “complete” or “needs more work.” If you want to give kids a standard, make it that they have to show proficiency in a certain number of these challenges each year to their teacher (not to a nationwide agency).

And for god’s sake, don’t evaluate the teachers on how well their students do-- that sort of system always discourages risk-taking and timely feedback to students.  No one can give more timely and informative feedback to a student than their teacher. Empower teachers to do so, rather than judging them for not having kids memorize enough items.  Teaching is a creative art that can only be effectively evaluated subjectively, by a principal or other teachers.  Any attempt to objectively evaluate teachers not only is ineffective, but also destroys so many gamification features of a classroom experience for the students. The type of assessment used effect the experience of the learning environment, for both students and teachers. Choose a poor assessment technique, and you de-gamify learning.


By offering these three case studies, I was hoping to have a more grounded, concrete example of gamified education, to couple with the more abstract analysis from my earlier posts.  To end on a caveat, although I am convinced that the current classroom practices I mentioned are poor teaching techniques, I’m not convinced that the alternatives I offered are necessarily the best, nor the only, way to gamify or improve the classroom.  I mean them more as a starting point for discussion, rather than a final answer.  I would love to hear from others on your example of good and bad gamified classroom practices.  How would you like to see classroom practices change, and do those changes align with gamification principles?

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