Voices in Education

Gamification in Education: Tips to Inspire Students

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“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, it was those words that would motivate me to become the teacher I am today. 

Adding Enthusiasm to the Education Conveyer Belt

When I first began my teaching career, I was fortunate 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 to school with. They want to be there and want to learn, everything is new and exciting. Somewhere along the way, as we move them down the educational conveyor belt, that zest they arrived 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 took a position teaching grade 8 sciences at a middle school. On day one, I expected the students to be enthusiastic about science. Instead, they were just, how you say, "blah" about it all. Their responses 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 due to a true interest in the topic. I wanted to change this mindset, so I needed to figure out a better way. 

Using Game Design Concepts in Non-Traditional Settings

I found many different ideas and concepts but one stood out to me back in 2015. The concept was in 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 principles/elements in a non-game setting. This concept can be applied in small bursts or applied to entire units or courses. I had discovered it and now it was time to apply the method. 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!  

Helpful Tips for “Gamifying” your Classroom in the Short Term

1. Add 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 the countdown could mean. 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 prompt writing, math estimation or science hypothesis activities. In a virtual setting, you can do this by covering objects with paper and then having students speculate what it could be. You can even add a sense of mystery with a little acting and trickery. By using a platform such as Zoom, where you can give control of the mouse up to a user, you could have a colleague join in the meeting with a mysterious name and you could give them control of your mouse (unknown to the students of course) and make it appear as if you’ve been “hacked”. They could upon the virtual whiteboard and leave cryptic clues/messages about something that the students need to solve. 

2. Review Games + Randomness 
Use the method in mystery to lead up to a review game the kids have not tried before. Take an old board game and bring it back to life. Here is an example for Jenga. 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 the method, 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. Virtually, I’ve created some simple tools anyone can use! A great one is known as Lucky Loot, where students choose mystery loot bags after answering questions! Click here to fine the instructional video and free template I created. Something that should be simple becomes really difficult and fun! Award a prize to the winning team like 30 second sneak peek with an upcoming test or pick a number between 1 & (# of questions on test) and give them 1 question early. Students love this and feel empowered! 

3. Create Stories using Real Life Examples  
Many students 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. You can even put a sentence or two in the activity that describes why this is a useful thing to understand/learn. Ex: This will help you understand and become media literate because in a time of social media and false information being spread, understanding sources is important. 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 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 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.

These ideas are just 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. The big question is, how do I get started if I want to do this? The start-up process is easy! 

The Start Up Process in Gamification

1. Choose a Theme and Add Branches 
Think of something that you know inside and out! Mystery? Space? Medieval times? Zombie Apocalypse? All of these are excellent, broad areas to begin with. Remember to keep your theme broad, space vs. Star Wars, because a more broad topic will allow you to add more elements from different areas instead of locking you into one specific frame of thinking. Once you have a theme, you have a starting point to work with. Think of this like the trunk of your tree, all of the other ideas branch off of the theme! 

2. Epic Meaning and Calling AKA: Purpose 
Now that you have a theme, add a purpose. Whether it is a short term gamification or long term, you need to develop a goal. Looking at your theme, are they trying to help and/or save someone? Do they need to steal something or get something back? Perhaps they need to defeat an evil person? Begin to build a short story (narrative piece) around this purpose. This helps connect the student to the program. Think of it like watching a movie or reading a book! Even though you know the events aren’t real, you cannot help but become captivated by them and this works brilliantly in school. 

3. Curriculum Connections
With a theme and purpose, now it is time to develop your missions, quests or challenges (whatever terms fit your theme). To do this, first select a curricular goal to reach (i.e. understanding different lever classes). Second, think of a real world example of where you would potentially see this in action. If you can't think of a real world application, think creatively using your theme. Perhaps students need to use their knowledge of this topic to defeat an enemy in a trivia duel where correct answers = damage inflicted. Finally, write a small piece connecting the 1st and 2nd elements together. For example, students encounter someone who needs help lifting a heavy box to free someone trapped underneath, and in order to do it, you need to create a class 1 lever. Students now have a goal and purpose with a personal element (the reason we become connected to books and movies even though we know they aren’t real) and collectively, these boost motivation and engagement in students! 

I could go on and on here but I'll stop here for now! Whether you use it in the short term or the long term, gamification is emerging and I'd encourage you to learn more. I have lots of ideas, tips and tricks on my YouTube channel and my website www.mrhebert.org. I'd love to help you transform your own classes! 

I guess the final question is ... 

Will you press start? Or better yet, when?

Scott Hebert Teacher https://www.mrhebert.org/ Twitter: @MrHebertPE

Scott Hebert is an educator of 10 years who has made it his goal to eliminate the stereotype that school is boring. In an effort to do this he has been recognized both provincially (Alberta Excellent in Teaching Award in 2013) and Internationally (Best Gamification in Education Project Globally in 2015) for his efforts towards promoting Gamification in the classroom. These efforts also led him to be named among the Top 50 Finalist for the Global Teacher Prize of 2020, of which he is still in the running for the Top 10 (currently being released). 

He lives by the message, “Would you want to be in your classroom?” and strives to achieve this goal daily. As a trained Physical Education teacher he is a massive proponent of fun and movement in the classroom and up to this point it has been producing results!

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