Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rethinking Learning and Gaming

This week, I have been working my way through Dr. Z's RWLD about using gaming in education. I highly recommend that you check it out and learn a little about the topic before continuing through this blog post, as this is a reflection of my thoughts on gaming application based on what I experienced in the RWLD.

One of the first concepts that was introduced in the RWLD was flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow and described it on Edutopia as "...when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be... concentration, clear goals, feedback, there is the feeling that what you can do is more or less in balance with what needs to be done." Mark McGuinness nicely lists some elements of flow here, but you can hear the expert talk about it himself in the TED Talk below.


Learning about flow caused me to realize that I have experienced this sensation myself. I think of flow as being "in the zone." When I am in the zone, I am not consciously thinking about the task I am completing or the time it is taking me to do it; generally, I am just getting the job done. Flow occasionally happens when I am working on homework. For example, the other night I sat down and wrote an 8-page, single-spaced math paper all in one sitting; granted, there were moments during that time that I came "back to reality" and lamented about how awful the experience was, but most of the time I was just writing. While I have experienced flow in my work, I think it is more likely to happen when I am doing a fun activity like gaming. For example, in the summer I play Sims pretty avidly, and I could waste three hours on the computer without realizing it. Today I spent some time playing The Last of Us (though flow is sometimes difficult for me to experience in that game; the appearance of enemies generally makes me panic and question my choice to play in the first place). I also love to read and can "lose myself" in a good book, especially if it is a book I have chosen to read for fun as opposed to a textbook. Now that you know a little about flow, I encourage you to reflect upon the activities in your life that can get you "in the zone!"

Of course, it is important for me to think about how the concepts I encounter in my classes will impact me as a future educator. It would be incredible if I could get my students "flowing" in school. We all know that sitting in a desk for multiple hours a day listening to the teacher lead a class, even if the topic is interesting, is a dreadful experience. I truly believe that only by making the classroom experience student-centered will we be able to engage our students. However, there is a difference between engaging our students and totally hooking them through this flow state. How can we bring this flow to the learning process?

The option that we explored this week was gaming. Gaming and learning (in an engaged way - the way we hope learning to occur) are actually pretty similar! Dr. Z compiled a list of gaming elements that make for good learning, including choice, failure, progress bars, multiple long- and short-term aims, rewarding all successful efforts, prompt and meaningful feedback, elements of uncertainty/awards, and socialization. I don't think I could explain these any more informatively yet succinctly like Dr. Z did, so please check out his post. Because gaming and learning are compatible, it seems sensible that gaming could be effectively utilized in the learning environment.

When I chatted with my boyfriend about my ideas and insights related to bringing gaming to the classroom, he suggested I watch this Extra Credit video. If you enjoy it, I encourage you to check out their channel on YouTube; they did a series on gamifying education beyond this single video.


The Extra Credit video brings up another similarity between gaming and learning: agency. In a nutshell, agency is a student's drive to take learning into their own hands. Students with agency not only complete the learning tasks assigned to them by their teacher, they also seek out learning opportunities and attempt to make meaning from what they are learning. If you're curious about student agency and how to build it in your classroom, check out 10 Tips for Developing Student Agency. Gamers also have to seek out the tasks associated with the game, whether that be clicking onto the next level or hunting down the character who gives them the next task. And in many of the games I play, I can seek to fulfill tasks I set for myself, whether that be collecting all of the treasures hidden in the game or completing side-jobs that aren't directly associated with the main game plot.

As I thought about the possibility of incorporating gaming into school, Ender's Game repeatedly returned to my brain. Ender's Game (a book that has been adapted into a movie and comic) involves children going to battle school and learning about how to fight buggers (invading aliens) from role-played battles and a video game that adapts to the choices they make. The students are on teams that accumulate points, so each child's efforts in battle school affect their team points (similar to Harry Potter's house competition as well). Though these stories are fictional examples of gamifying the classroom in their own ways, it is clear that this concept is not new. Yet, only a few teachers (to my knowledge) have actually undertaken turning their classes into games, such as Lee Sheldon and Liz Kolb.

If gamifying the classroom is not new, and it seems to be conducive to student learning and creating flow, why isn't it more popular? There are many ways in which gaming and learning are similar, and I think it could be effectively incorporated into the classroom with success (provided you have taken the time to create the gaming system well, explained your different approach to parents and back it up using appropriate research, etc.). However, to incorporate gaming in the classroom would take a complete overhaul of the classroom experience, and I'm not convinced that it is flawless. I think that the hurdles that must be overcome to incorporate gaming in the classroom disheartens teachers and discourages them from using gaming in their classrooms.

First, if learning is to be changed so that students complete tasks in order to make progress in their games (and "check off" skills that they know and are able to do), the learning experience is personalized. Students can work at their own pace, make multiple attempts at concepts or quests they don't completely understand, adapt their learning to their own individual needs, etc. That is a good thing, but according to our current school system, the personalization that occurs is limited. I think of this gamification idea as a progression of scaffolded quests and tasks that students have to complete to get from point A (whether that be the start of a unit, the start of the school year, etc.) to point B (the end of the unit, school year, etc.). If we truly want students to be able to be able to progress through the learning at their own pace, though, we can't have "roadblocks" that are our conventional classroom grade levels based on students' age. (Ken Robinson has a great video about changing educational paradigms, that discusses this idea a little further; the whole video is insightful, but skip ahead to 6:30-7:40 if you just want to watch the part that I'm referencing.) For example, the class I am completing this assignment for is a combined undergrad-graduate student class, and even though I am an undergrad I feel like I can contribute useful insights to the class (more about social media, less about actually using it in the classroom). However, there is also a worry that if school opens itself completely and does not structure by grade levels, students may be grouped together intellectually yet struggle socially. This whole issue is complex and something that I would like to continue thinking about and refine my ideas further, yet it is relevant to the conversation of gaming in the classroom.

I also struggle with the idea that learning is extrinsically motivated. I understand that the current grading system involves extrinsic motivation with its letter-grade system, but I have never truly liked this concept. How can we change the classroom environment so that students want to learn and are not "bribed" by extrinsic motivators? Changing the class so that gaming, with its points/badges/trophies/etc., is not completely intrinsic motivation either. Intrinsic motivation is another concept I have struggled with; I grappled with the idea in one of my earlier blog posts this year. However, I believe gamification continues to propagate extrinsic motivation in the classroom, which is something we're trying to work away from.

Another thing I question about this process is the competition that is involved. If there is a leaderboard involved in the game, students' self-worth becomes a concern. What if the classroom community decides you should be shamed if you're at the top of the leaderboard? Then students are being punished by high achievement. Additionally, students may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or not good enough if they never hit the leaderboard and are able to see how far behind they are compared to their peers. I think that for some students, this may diminish their self-concepts. Even if the students use alternate usernames that makes the leaderboard "anonymous," students can still compare the class to themselves (or they could spill who they are so that everyone knows everyone else's names anyway). I don't think that some students would be invested in the competitive aspect of it; how do you spark competitive drive in the students that just don't care about the game? I personally am extremely competitive when it comes to my grade, and I would put in the effort all day and night to be the best, but I don't think most kids are like that. Lastly, the Extra Credit video (and some of the other resources I explored in this assignment) perpetuated the idea that if students are on teams (or there was somehow an incentive for certain classmates reaching certain points or achievements), they would root for and help each other to boost the team as a whole. However, it would take a lot of effort on the teacher's part to foster a community of co-learners in that way, and I'm not sure that the students would actually do that.

Am I missing the point entirely? Do you believe that gaming should be used in the classroom, or are you skeptical? What are your ideas about flow - have you ever experienced it? Please share your ideas with me in the comments!

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