When it comes to game theory, I have had only a passing, skeptical interested. But my recent studies have started me thinking about gamification from a different perspective. So that is my selected adventure this week.
The quick Answer to One Framing Question
The week’s framing questions for the topic were provocative. Do I think we need to gamify our classrooms to engage students? This one I can answer quickly. No. There are many ways for creative teachers to draw students into learning without having to sexy it up with a video game interface. That “no” is even firmer if it means that gaming is the only way we conduct instruction since no teacher can be successful with only one method or strategy in their toolbox.
Do I think gamificaion is bribery and the way students learn in the 21st century? As a result of my course work last term and my readings and explorations this week, those answers are now more complex. As I said, the idea of gamification has been, at best, at the edges of my professional interests. When thinking about my own gaming experiences my gut tells me there is something there that I “get” as it applies to learning and I have trusted that academics have teased out all the theory for those teachers who want to traverse that route in their classrooms. But this grown up, serious teacher never pursued deep research into game theory because I was fine with my practice as it was, thank you very much! But last term was a watershed for me when it comes to thinking about the conditions that provide powerful learning experiences. The course of study Dr. Angela Elkordy put together for Intro to the Learning Sciences required us to think deeply about our own learning in every conceivable context (documentation of which is posted on this blog under the NLU Class Journal Entries tab above). Examining my own informal, collaborative, digital, self-directed, just-in-time, playful learning experiences caused me to realize the potency of learning in these other-than-formal contexts. Those reflections have led me to re-evaluate some core beliefs about teaching and learning — for both students in the classroom and teachers in professional learning. That re-evaluation has ramifications for my thinking about game theory.
Constructivism and Game Theory
I’ve always believed that teachers needed to be more facilitators of exploration than dispensers of information. I am a constructivist. So my instruction — be it with children or adults — is designed accordingly. My lessons are always written for the specific learning needs of the students in front of me. Pacing is a dance with students’ zones of proximal development. Formative assessment is central for two-way feedback, metacognition, and reflection for both students and myself that then determine my next planning steps. With the growth of digital technology and mobile tech particularly, it makes sense to leverage these to push the boundaries of constructivism even farther. Additionally, I see clear connections now between constructivist methods and the way games work for those who play them.
Any-time, just-in-time, exploratory learning all cement learning in long-term memory. As a result of Dr. Elkordy’s strategies with us, I experienced first hand how learning new content through learning a new app permanently inks that neural tattoo on the brain. Almost weekly I learned a new app of my choosing by exploring it, playing in it, and not from a formal training course or a user’s manual. Then I applied my understanding of the app to demonstrate my understanding of the course content. All of this was done informally, in my time, with just enough difficulty to challenge me. Except now I don’t only understand the content. By learning content through the use of a digital tool, I now understand so much more than just the content itself. Not the least of which is that the learning I structure myself is highly enjoyable and more often than not elicits flow and the consolidation of understanding in long-term memory. These are the learning conditions I want to create for my students and teachers.
A More Complicated Answer to the Other Framing Questions
As to the questions of gamifying education as bribery and being particularly suited to 21st century learners, I believe it is neither. The way humans learn best is the way humans learn best whether they are of the 11th century or 21st century. What is different about the 21st century is our knowledge of how the brain functions; the advent of technologies that allow us to align our pedagogy to our neurology, psychology, sociology; and the economic imperative that we change the way we do school. In as much as game theory and educational psychology share underlying elements, I can accept gamification as a methodology. Though does it always need to be so literal as turning the learning process into an actual game? Especially since doing so requires an incredible investment of time and effort to convert a unit of study into a game that will create the conditions necessary for deep understanding to occur. So I have generated a few key questions that could help guide decision-making when thoughts turn to gamification:
- What are the concepts from game theory that are applicable to a given unit of instruction? A given set of students? Under what circumstances might it be useful to apply those concepts to improve teaching and learning?
- When teachers decide to convert a unit into an actual game, what online platforms are available to facilitate the implementation and that can quickly and easily provide insights (evidence and data) about student learning?
- When teachers want or have to make the game themselves, how can they create elegant games that don’t require disproportionate amounts of time to construct and relatively easily provide insights (evidence and data) about student learning?
How can we make certain gamifying efforts result in students learning the intended content and not just playing the game? Video: Heck Awesome blog, Carrie Baughcum
Still, informal learning, unstructured learning, choice, and play are powerful contexts in which deep understanding can occur. These modes are, as Willis calls them, “neuro-logical”. It makes sense to create them when possible since they activate optimal learning pathways in the brain and foster new, strong synaptic connections. Well-designed games create these conditions and leverage the same brain processes for learning. Thus, including high-quality game-based instruction could be a powerful method for teaching and learning.
Gamifying Professional Learning
What was already a paucity of professional learning time in CPS has been completely eliminated this year as a partial “solution” to the budget travesty being visited upon CPS teachers and students. As a result, I have started leveraging ICT options that are included with GAFE to continue our professional learning despite losing our PD calendar. Via Groups and Sites, we continue the work asynchronously by holding discussions of professional readings, presenting aggregated learning walk evidence and sharing thoughts and insights about them. We have already moved quite a bit of planning to remote, synchronous spacetime via Hangouts and Drive. So the idea of gamifying professional learning is just an extension of this. Taking PD into the realm of gaming would have the combined benefits of making PD more relevant by providing teachers with differentiation, choice, and timing. I have also started researching adding digital badges to the work which I find terribly exciting! On my goal list for next year: implementing a badged, gamified professional learning series for the schools with which I work.
Digital badges for both student and teachers. Video: HASTAC
Below are three game-based PD ideas I’m totally stealing from our readings this week:
- Fired Up For February — A great video demonstration of gamified PD above
- APPmazing Race
- Creating badges for professional learning experiences
A Language Geek’s Rhetorical Finish
Even as I find myself being convinced of the benefits of game theory as instructional practice, there is still something that doesn’t sitting well when I hear phrases like “gamifying the classroom”. If you’ll indulge the English teacher unpacking language here. A game is a diversion or something trivial. Something that can be taken less seriously. Even in the multi-billion dollar world of professional sports, the expression, “It’s only a game.” is used to readjust perspectives when emotions are high. Yet the very project at hand for education is de-trivializing digital instruction among reluctant educators. So while I can see the underlying value and power of this way of “doing” teaching and learning, I wonder if framing it as “gamification” works against us. I don’t have an answer as yet for what to call such a complex process. Maybe a few rounds of Words With Friends will do the trick!