I have a tendency toward writing a lot of words, so I’ve decided that in hopes of also appealing to people who want to cut straight to the chase, any classroom-ready bits of practical advice will always be in bold – if there’s a list built into a post, maybe just the headings of actionable advice will be in bold.
I’m thinking today about my first month-and-a-half of classroom/class gamification.
The fact is, I’ve been thinking about gamification and how to implement it in my classroom so much that I’ve been at significant risk of not writing anything – I have been suffering from a bit of paralysis caused by my having too many topic options. To combat the paralysis, I am here today to make a choice and just pick one thing. Because my head has been swimming with to-do lists, topic lists, and blog post ideas, I doubt this method will change anytime soon. The result will be that the blog posts on this topic won’t keep to a particular order. Rather blog post topics on gamification will arrive in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way.
If you’re the oddball who’s found your way to my website and are reading about gamification for the first time, you’ll want to know what it is. To gamify is to turn an experience into a game. This method is useful in engaging otherwise disengaged participants in some activity. I wrote more about that here.
The topic today really comes from my constant desire to find the dissatisfied students and suss out a way to appeal to them. One of the ways I do this is by asking students regularly what they think about their class experiences and my approach as a teacher. I do this verbally and in writing, whether it be during class, outside of class, as no-point questions on quizzes, or some other way.
One prompt I offered to students was in an 8-minute writing exercise. I told them to explain my classroom game as best they could, however they understood it at that moment. They should write as though a parent or friend had asked, “So what’s this class game thing all about?” I assured them that if they misunderstand or are lacking some information about the game, I would take that lack as a sign that I’ve left something out and owe them more to fill the gaps and improve the game. The results were interesting.
What Students Understood
Most everyone understood the theme of the game, and they understood that they could do side-quests to earn game points. Those were the essentials, and I was happy in knowing that the elements I’d worked through the most were the elements they could identify.
What Students Were Missing
What I discovered was missing was an overarching purpose – and it was no surprise, really. I had been thinking it for two weeks, but I had been too busy with leaderboard creation and side-quest brainstorming to work it out – but I knew: no one plays a game with no object. The object for us will come in the form of a boss fight. Students will earn points, level up and power up, and then they’ll face a boss. The students didn’t say this, exactly, but I came away thinking it. Some people are motivated by the idea of earning badges and points. The status boosts alone will propel them forward. Most people won’t be similarly moved, though. They need a final objective. If it’s not a literal boss fight, it had better be a metaphorical one – and we don’t mean a test.
What Students Feared
The other two takeaways of challenges I face in gamifying my classroom were more nebulous. Some students were actually becoming worried that I would not merely tell them what to do – or that I’d do it less often. The second was that they feel like too much of the side-questing and team challenges in the classroom would feel as though I wasn’t doing my job.
These two worries are related, of course. When we train students to expect a teacher to stand at the front of the room and tell a story, ask the leading question, and give instructions in such-and-such a manner, the students will expect that this is what it is to teach a class.
If instead I say to them: today’s challenge is to build a LEGO object modeling the ship in this painting as best you are able, and then I set them to it, some students will become worried that they’re missing something. Where are all of the notes? Why am I talking so little during the class? I’m moving around the room to ask about the details students are choosing to add to their models and to ask them why they’re adding x and not y, but I’m not telling them what they must add. I haven’t told them how big the model should be, or how many pieces it must include. When a student asked, “Should I build this to scale?” I only offered that that student should be conscious of the time available and build the best possible model, whatever that means to that student.
If I’m asking the students to build a timeline from a resource that lists many events by first making an organized chart in their notebooks, I am assigning a multi-day project that requires that students (a) comprehend what they’re reading, (b) make determinations about what events are important to include on a timeline geared toward purpose X and which events are unimportant, (c) keep and arrange organized notes with a specific goal in mind, (d) understand and apply chronological thinking, (e) summarize events in a way that will fit on the timeline and also includes the most pertinent info about the events they’re including. There are other skills at play besides these. So it’s academically rigorous, if I’m careful about it, and it’s one way to teach and practice the skills the students in my Middle School History classroom need to learn and to practice. They learn by doing.
However, if I don’t tell them how many events they’re required to include, and if I don’t tell them how many words or sentences count as “a summary of the event”, and if I don’t tell them which among the events listed in the original resource are the most important events, some students who are capable of making these choices will worry that I am not doing what they expect me to do for them. Of course, some students are not prepared in terms of skills to complete all of the stages of the project without careful guidance – and these are the students with whom I spend classtime, working closely at times step-by-step, or offering one instruction at a time and then checking in every so often and between stages. What I’m more talking about here are those students who are absolutely capable of doing these things with essentially no guidance at all, but who are resistant because they fear being punished for choosing incorrectly. They’re just not used to being given this level of academic freedom. These students often take coaxing to become willing to choose for themselves, and the coaxing must happen repeatedly – on multiple assignments – before they’re willing to move forward on their own and without handholding (where such handholding actually holds them back).
I have two hopes. First, I hope that the students who are at present only really comfortable when decisions are prescribed will become more comfortable making their own choices. I hope they can come around to appreciating that they’re gaining more skills when I don’t make some of the choices on their behalf than when I make all of the choices for them. Second, I hope that I can avoid taking it personally when they think, in my not following what they’re used to, that I’m not doing my job as their teacher. That’s tough, for me, because I always care what people think. I want them to see it my way and hope to bring them on board. For now, some of them definitely aren’t. More remains to be seen on this point.