Game On!

Game Theory and the Future of Education

A few years ago, I made a transition from teaching high school English to middle school. My first year was tough. I didn’t have my own classroom, so I moved from period to period with the students, all of my materials traveling on a small, plastic cart through crowded hallways. My organizational skills suffered, I struggled with finding a direction for my curriculum and classroom management was challenging.

Over summer break that year (after questioning many life choices), I resolved to come back better and set about to find a base upon which to build my class. I thought back over my teaching experiences up to that point and even went back to the well of all of the educational theory I learned in college, but nothing seemed to put me on the path toward success and my students would be the ones to suffer most, my career aside. I had to consider what would make me happy to do every day and hope that it translated.

I found it in my love of games and puzzles. It started with my dad, who would provide me with Dell crossword and puzzle books and play card games with me. From there, I moved on to video games and to a modest personal tabletop game collection today. I theorized that if I could use gaming to engage my students competitively and enjoy myself during the school day, then success would follow.

I adopted various practices from that day forward. I found Classcraft, which is a classroom-based RPG (role-playing game) system, and crafted its rules and rewards to my needs. I reviewed vocabulary meanings by making puzzles for the students to put together and I hosted quiz competitions in class using Kahoot! to review grammar concepts. Once they were hooked into the gaming framework, where they walked in each day with a goal of racking up points and victories, I began to use that to its fullest potential with a very simple method: my closet doors became billboards, advertising each homeroom’s class mastery percentage on a chapter-by-chapter pretest and post-test. Not only were they seeing their character’s Classcraft score on the game at the front of the room, they were also seeing at the back of the room how much they could improve their percentage as a group by working hard that day. They found meaning in their work, could see real data on their progress regularly, and were in a goal-oriented mindset.

And we had a lot of fun together, which made their academic progress icing on the cake.

I saw much improvement in their mastery over a two-year span, often jumping anywhere from 10-30 percent as a class in any given chapter. They reveled if they were the class with the biggest improvement and resolved to do better in the next chapter if they weren’t.

The biggest evaluation of my experiment came with their yearly standardized test, Indiana’s ISTEP exam, a test which had gone through many changes from the year prior. Scores around the state plummeted on the new test because of its large jump in difficulty. Would gamification in our classroom translate to the ISTEP or were those numbers on my classroom walls false data? I was stunned when I crunched the numbers.

Whereas the statewide score in Language Arts tumbled 13 percent on average, my students saw gains of 13 percent (sixth-grade) and seven percent (seventh-grade) over the year prior. The eighth-grade scores stayed steady, which I considered a success in the context of the difficulty changes to the test. Nonetheless, the data I got looked successful. A new approach to gamifying my classroom had a positive effect, not only with their test scores but also when it came to classroom management. My students showed more discipline with their work, pushed each other to be more successful, and wanted to come to class.

While gamification may not necessarily be the “new fad” concept in education anymore, it is certainly an approach that can bear fruit for a teacher with a gaming background. The teacher needs to be someone who will buy in by taking part in the games themselves because it raises the stakes for the students and heightens their competitive interest. I did my share by lip-synching to terrible Justin Bieber songs once in a while and fully embracing my position as “Gamemaster.” If nothing else, my successes, along with those of other teachers who are gaming with their students, show that there is an argument for connecting gaming principles to academic work.

As for the future of gamification in education, there is plenty of speculation to go around. Many sites such as Class Dojo and Edmodo rely on badges to reward student accomplishments, and plenty of sites, both inside and outside of education, are doing the same because they are seeing responses from players. Khan Academy’s learning system is practically built for gaming principles. But if we’re thinking in terms of the future of education, which could much more individualized and technologically-anchored, then we may be on our way to something special.

Imagine students who can log in and work on any subject of their choice at their own pace. Maybe they are at a seventh grade level in math, but only a fifth grade level in English. They can work on either one on their own time and seek help from their classroom teacher, a freelance online educator, or their parents. Students would return real-time data in the form of scores from practice exercises and exams going to teachers, who would then craft their next steps, instantly creating individualized learning differentiation. Educators and parents can see visual data across the board for student mastery and students are earning badges, points, or XP as they advance. It’s hard to say whether this would promote at-home learning systems more or give schools a better chance at success, but the evidence certainly shows a lot of potential in either setting.

If you’re someone who is interested in making gamification part of your classroom or bettering the system you already have in place, here are some reading recommendations to help:

  • Gamify by Brian Burke
  • Gamify Your Classroom by Matthew Farber
  • Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal
  • Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess
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