George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Attacking the Engagement Crisis with Gamification

April 18, 2017

"You will fail as a teacher. You focus too much on play and fun" These were the first words I was told when I sat down for my exit meeting with my first ever host teacher. Little did this teacher know that it was those words that would motivate me to become the teacher I am today. 

When I first began my teaching career I was fortunate enough to begin where school begins for all students, in an elementary school. I believe all teachers should have to teach a year in this age bracket because you really see the enthusiasm and excitement students arrive at school with. They want to be there and want to learn, everything is new and everything is exciting. Somehow though, as we move them down the educational conveyor belt, that zest they arrive with for education begins to rot. Many students begin to grow a serious dislike for school. Why does this happen? I believe the answer is simple but often ignored in the face of demanding schedules and increased workloads – a serious lack of engagement! 

After 4 years in an elementary school I decided to take a position teaching grade 8 sciences at a middle school. On day one, I expected the students to be enthusiastic about science but they were just, how you say, "blah" about it all. They were nothing like my former elementary students who loved most everything education. To these grade 8s, it was more about getting it done because they had to, if at all, then a true interest in the topic. I knew I needed this to change so I set out on figure out a way.

I found many different ideas and concepts but one stood out to me back in 2015 and that was the emerging teaching methodology of "gamification". Gamification is a concept used from business to marketing but not a whole lot in education despite the incredibly obvious ties that exist. In essence, it is the idea of using game design principals/elements in a non-game setting. This concept can be applied in small bursts or applied to entire units or courses. I had found it and now it was time to apply it. I have since immersed myself in the topic and want to share how successful it can be in your own classrooms! I have seen grades increase, attendance increase and engagement grow exponentially!  

Here are some helpful tips for “gamifying” your classroom in the short term. 

1. Mystery

Walk into your class one day and just put the number 5 on your board. Say nothing. The next day change it to 4 and so on. Have the students speculate what it could be counting down to. Wrap something in black paper and just put a white question mark on it around the 2 mark. Encourage inferences, observations and hypothesis. Let your mystery lead up to a large reveal of a task to be completed or a challenge. Great for LA writing activities, for math estimation activities or science hypothesis activities. 

2. Review Games + Randomness

Use the method above to lead up to a review game the kids have not tried before. Do this by taking an old board game and bringing it back to life. Here is an example for Jenga.  You set up the Jenga tower and ask the students trivia questions. Jeopardy style is recommended or they can pick popsicle sticks numbered to associate with Post-Its/Cue Cards that have questions.  This is known as "randomness" and really captures a student’s attention. Regardless of how, these questions earn them points however, they can only access the points if they successfully pull a block from the tower. To spice it up, you can write rules on specific blocks like picking one only from the middle column or picking behind your back. Something that should be simple becomes really difficult and fun! Award a prize to the winning team like 30 seconds with an upcoming test in advance or pick a number between 1 & (# of questions on test) and give them 1 question early. Students love this and feel empowered! 

3. Using A Story

Many students always complain while saying, “Where am I going to use this in real life?!” so attack this misconception head on. Create a story that sees your student encounter someone who needs help. Tie their problem to the topics being covered in class such as…

a) A resistance leader needs help writing a speech to persuade people to join their army (LA) 

b) A hobbit needs you to build a pneumatic/hydraulic lift to rescue a child who is trapped down in a well (Science/STEM)

c)  A farmer needs to determine the best area layout for their crop fields and best size for grain silo based upon available resources (Math) 

You can get as creative as you’d like here and then you can rope in rewards and/or consequences based on the results. Rescue the child and years down the road (i.e.: later in the year) they become successful and award you something or maximize profit for the farmer who makes you a partner and pays you.

That is only the tip of the iceberg! Gamification can run so much deeper. It is a real game changer in education. It can transform even the most difficult of classes. Whether you use it in the short term of the long term gamification is emerging and I'd encourage you to learn more and I would be happy to help you out! 

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