I decided to write a blog about applying gamification to the classroom because I am not an expert. I am not a sales representative promoting the agenda of a forward thinking tech start-up. I have no professional or economic stake in fomenting a “gamification revolution.” I am a teacher, and in an industry where so many well-intentioned ideas for improving education fall flat I want to understand why one that I stumbled upon seemed to work.
What I remember most about the first group of students I was given to teach was that they were largely indifferent to the subject matter of my class – Social Studies. The textbooks provided by the school district did little to inspire interest, much less honest to goodness intellectual curiosity. I needed to engage my students in a way that could challenge as well as instruct them. These are the circumstances in which “The Race for The A’s” game was born.
My first teaching assignment came in the middle of a marking period. A large number of students were already struggling with their grades, and I wanted to give my class the opportunity to enjoy a fresh start with a new instructor. In order to motivate my class and win their attention and I dangled in front of the students the prize of an “A” grade. Playing the only valuable card in my hand, I delivered the following sales pitch:
“I am sorry to report that some of you are failing this class. Some of you have not turned in an assignment all year. Some of you have never passed a test. Some of you have given up on the idea of passing this class, much less earning an “A” grade. But I’m here to tell you that regardless of how well or how poorly you have performed in this class before today, there is still a way to get an “A” in this class. I Guarantee it. And the best part is all you have to do to get the “A” is win a game.”*
This had their attention. Now it was up to me to make the promise into a meaningful instructional reality.
The specific dynamics of the “Race for the A’s” game will be covered on this site in the near future. A broad view of the program was that I broke the class into competing teams, and allowed each to develop a collective identity. The teams would then compete over the course of a marking period in various instructional and content review activities. The degree to which each team succeeded in these activities earned the teams points that were tallied on a leaderboard. As the marking period moved along the stakes for adding team points to the leaderboard grew higher. The teams ultimately jockeyed for position in a semester culminating activity that decided which team’s members would win the cherished prize of an “Automatic A.”
The process of administering and granting awards in my “Race for the A” game was not without its negatives. As I deconstruct the strategy I used on this site, the strengths and weaknesses of my approach will become clear. But what had become clear to me at the time was that I had stumbled upon an instructional strategy that seemed to motivate my students. After having languished in a conventional instructional environment the prospects of playing a game for a grade seemed appealing to them. Every day teams squawked about their position on the leaderboard. Competitive activities featured clever gamesmanship, demands of justice at questionable calls, and ingenious ways to gain (and keep opponents from gaining) the upper hand. I found my students to be enthusiastic and engaged – and this was reflected in their grades. Because the acquisition of knowledge served a larger competitive purpose my students wanted to learn. I had them right where I wanted them.
Three years later county budget cuts and some outrageous fortune pushed me out of the classroom. It was then that I first encountered the term “gamification.” To my current understanding, gamification is the use of game-related operations and techniques being applied to “non-game” situations. The “Race for the A” game in my classroom had been created without any real awareness that this concept was being applied in many different places in many different ways outside the educational field. In fact, the classroom seemed to be one of the last places where “gamification” seemed to be gaining traction.
As a teacher who had a successful experience with a “gamified” classroom, I became curious as to why this strategy had not become more popular. What were the obstacles to bringing this strategy to other classes? Is gamified education a valid instructional strategy? Are there game strategies that work better than others in this environment? Had other teachers implementing this strategy overcome some of the problems that had bedeviled me? These are some of the questions that inspired me to write this blog.
I would like to reiterate that I am not an expert. If it seems to the reader that I do not know what I am talking about, it is because I don’t. I am seeking information, so if you possess any knowledge worth imparting I invite you to do so. This site exists because I want to share with any interested parties the process by which I am learning about a topic that compels me. Feel free to adopt or discard any information you discover on these pages. Happy reading, and may you enjoy success in whatever instructional approach you see fit to use with your students.
* Many veteran educators cringed while reading that “sales pitch.” Trust that I am aware that more than a few “no-no” phrases were uttered in that soliloquy. As a 1st year teacher trying to keep my head above water, exchanging a guaranteed grade for a modicum of student compliance seemed like a worthwhile bargain. Experience, and the collective wisdom of my peers would later inform me (and the latter is exactly what this blog is all about).