Gamification and Education

There has been quite a bit of talk in the last year about gamification (a word I hate — it sounds cheesy, manipulative, and underhanded.)  Last weekend at PAX East I got a chance to enjoy James Portnow’s panel on Gaming and Education (Educating Through Play:  The Future of American Education).  As a former elementary and special education teacher turned unschooling facilitator (not only for my own children but for 500 + families via a Facebook group not to mention a well read unschooling website I own) I find the whole topic fascinating.  This is especially true since I spend several hours a week explaining to nervous parents that games aren’t evil and in fact are a wonderful natural way for children to learn.

Games give the child a natural reason to learn and develop the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic.  But games also provide a natural way to develop higher level skills like problem solving and trigger deeper interests and thought processes.  At least once  a week I explain how my own children have learned all the subjects that schools insist must be force fed naturally through playing games of all sorts, including the dreaded video games.  It is a subject close to my heart to say the least and I am anxiously awaiting the panel to be uploaded so I can share it.

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Es working through all the information on the dinosaur display at the local science museum.

Back to gamification.  Two of the panelists were using games and gaming as a means to facilitate natural learning through interest, which is awesome.  The other was gamifying college.  Now her explanation was fine and interesting and its great that it worked for them.  However, this is the bit that bugs me: school is already gamified.    In fact school even uses the same vocabulary as gaming (or visa versa since schools were around before video games):  achievements, levels, metrics, tests, pass, goals.  Grades and grade levels are in fact school gamified– grades are an arbitrary set of goals established by the designers (in this case usually the writers of the curriculum  though occasionally they are set by the teachers or administrators depending on the school system).  Grades naturally motivate a certain subset of students who are drawn to that particular sort of game.  On the other hand, grades do not motivate those of us who prefer setting our own goals or who see through it all as a game created by people who are trying to “trick us” into learning things they think we need.

One of my beefs with school was that I felt manipulated by the arbitrary rules, star charts, and grading.  It was all a game and it didn’t matter because I prefer, even in playing video games, to set my OWN goals based on my current interests.  I like to look at the possible goals to choose from and work towards a specific goal completely and totally until I reach it and then move on to another goal.  (This drives my kids crazy.  For instance just yesterday I finished a goal I had set in Harvest Moon: Animal Parade. It was an arbitrary goal but it was the one I chose to work towards at this time in the game– I could have instead been working towards getting any of the many other possible goals, but this was the one I chose at this time.. )

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Shamus and Issac watching a cut scene in a video game together.

Unlike video games, where I can choose whether I want to play towards the goal of moving to the next level or finding out how badly I can fail, school insists that all members be working toward the same goal– basically playing the same game in the same way at the same speed.  It doesn’t make sense.  Sure there are certain types of jobs out there where you need people who work the way the school system does but honestly most jobs nowadays require you to be intrinsically motivated rather than motivated by arbitrary things like star charts or grades.  The thing about life is that, just like choosing the  games you play based on what you are good at and what you hate, you can choose which direction your career takes you.  Frankly, unlike school where the “game” is already in place and you have to join whether you choose or not, life is full of goals you can choose for yourself, and we need to be prepared to make decisions and know ourselves well enough to choose wisely.  By gamifying school  we are just adding to the problem of kids getting all the way through and not knowing themselves and who they are well enough to make decisions for their future.

Instead of gamifying school even more, and adding even more arbitrary goals let’s focus on helping each child move in the direction they particularly need to go, based on their interests and natural skills.

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Rach and Es trying to work through a specific song together perfectly (as "twins" in Dance Dance Revolution).

Having been in the school system and seeing the many different sets of goals I can say, yes, the goals are arbitrary and all depend on who is making them.  There is no one skill set that all children will need since each person is an individual.  We all have different things we are good at.  As we grow up we will all go in directions that naturally utilize our known skill sets.  You wouldn’t expect a fish to be excellent at climbing a tree.  You would never expect a fish to even attempt it.  So why expect a child who is naturally excellent at sports and other physical activities to spend their entire day sitting in a classroom and missing recess because they didn’t sit still long enough to finish a math page?  Meanwhile, if you asked that child to figure out those same numbers in regards to their favorite sports team they could answer in seconds.

By allowing children to pursue their actual interests and play games; whether pretend, board, card, video games, whatever– kids naturally gravitate towards games they are good at and therefore find fun, we allow them to grow and learn the way they learn and grow best.  This allows them to gradually  move into the areas and subjects they find more challenging without fear.

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Issac and friend playing Super Mario Galaxy together.

For example: My kids love that I play video games and that when I am playing I research the ways to solve the problems, set goals for myself, and often get them involved in the research.  For games like Harvest Moon we print up charts and organize information in order to better play the game and not waste time (I am a walkthru player– I play mostly for the story and to set my own goals within a story). Yesterday my oldest was helping me figure out  how best to work through the next part of the game which requires a lot of farming.  She spent 20 minutes figuring out which would be the best crop, how much area I would need to plant, how much money it would cost to buy the seeds plus the fertilizer, and how much money I would make in a month by shipping out whatever was produced each day (some crops are every 2 days, some every 3, some every 4) in order to reach the next goal and then wrote it all down for me so I would know when I was ready to move to the next season.  I didn’t ask her to do it, I just asked which seeds would be best to use (info the walkthru already had available.)

She is 14 and if I had asked her to do that same amount of math on a worksheet there would have been much misery.  She hasn’t done a worksheet since she was 8 and other than occasional discussion about how to figure something out based on real life experience– like baking, shopping, coupons, etc. she has no experience with math as recognized by kids in public school.  However, she was able to figure out each aspect correctly, quickly, and in her head and put all the information into simple coherent notation so I would know when I needed the information.  She solved it because she wanted to and was interested.  She knew it wasn’t even information I was interested in yet but that I might want it eventually and she decided that she wanted to figure it out.

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Es playing a video game at the local science center-- note that she is the only female there, and yes, she won the game.

We have many similar stories since that is how my kids have learned– by doing what they love and gradually learning to do the things they find hard because they want to do what they love. (For those who are sure this is a special case; all three have learned math, science, history, spelling, reading, writing, geography, etc and all into the deeper higher level high school and college subjects, all out of natural curiosity, through video games, board games,  tv/movies, and even occasionally books.  In fact, my husband and I have also delved deeper thanks to media and our kids’ interests.)

So, instead of gamifying school even more– which it is with its grades and levels, achievements and star charts, and divisions based on age and ability, it is better to allow each child to play and grow in the areas they already excel, doing the things they are good at, and in doing so allowing them to approach the things that are outside their comfort zone naturally.  And no, I don’t have an answer for public schools except maybe to look at the model for Sudbury schools or at least to allow for differences and focus on the skills the kids have instead of on those they don’t — there is a reason we unschool and that I encourage those who can to do so.

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