Level up! Superpowers, quests and gamification in education


Gamification in Education Visual note made on iPad using Adobe Ideas by Nicki Hambleton

Gamification in Education
Visual note made on iPad using Adobe Ideas by Nicki Hambleton

Could game-based learning have a monopoly on education?

All kids love games, whether they are physical or mental games. As a child one of my favourite games to play was Kerplunk and the sheer fun of watching the marbles fall even today reminds me of the good times we had meeting up with my cousins each Christmas. Nowadays it is all Minecraft or Xbox in my family, games that one plays on their own mostly. We did have a Wii which was popular with us all and fun and we played this together as a family, but times have changed as have my kids. They like the challenges that today’s video games bring and the idea of improving by practice. How different is this to learning a new skill or gaining knowledge in school? Yet the two are perceived very differently by both educators and students.

Photo Credit: Ben Andreas Harding via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ben Andreas Harding via Compfight cc

What place do games have in the classroom?

Engaging students is important so that they love to learn and games can play a part in this process. At UWCSEA we integrate the idea of games or gaming but how successful is this? As I was searching for a video clip of Kerplunk in action to educate the younger viewers reading this post, I stumbled on an unusual article by a Psychologist using the game to stimulate discussion on natural selection!  Certainly not something I would have associated with the game but an intriguing concept. This in turn reminded me of an ice-breaking task Grade 6 engaged in Life skills using Jenga with questions taped to them to trigger discussion and helping them to get to know one another better. So too was Jenga used in an awareness campaign against Shark Fin Soup yet in a huge format set up in an outdoor space over lunchtime. The idea was to illustrate what happens if you take out one species in the food chain and specifically raising awareness of sharks. In the classroom, I have used buzzers in team games to review content with Grade 6 (specifically on the Elements and Principles of Art and the corresponding vocabulary.) They couldn’t get enough of it! So it appears students love the idea of games integrated into the curriculum. But we must make sure that they are there for valid reasons (not just for fun!). Science teacher, Tony Deeley uses Triptico resources with a variety of classes to check understanding and review work and watching his classes engagement and competitiveness was clear that they have a rightful place.

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Uncertain reward

Just last week a podcast on the BBC website (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04g8qfg) talked about the cognitive behaviour associated with gaming. Dr Paul Howard-Jones explains how the idea of uncertain reward in most games, ranging from snakes and ladders to Monopoly made the game more engaging, exciting and inspired motivation. Could this concept help students to work harder in a competitive way with their peers? The podcast focuses on a school in the UK using Zondle, a quiz/game show style online software company, within a Business Studies class of Grade 10 students where we hear students battling away in groups and deciding to “gamble” their answer for more reward. One student explains how the competitive nature of these quizzes pushes him to revise more to beat his peers and another says the intense music and the suspense drives him. That reminds me of many nights gripped by Who wants to be a Millionaire.

But is the learning better using this approach? How do you see this transfering to your classroom? How might the concept of uncertain reward help your students to achieve higher and give them incentive to learn?

Gamifying lesson content

Again, just this last week MindShift published an article “A Third graders plea for more game-based learning” and you can watch Cordell Steiner’s inspirational TEDx talk, “Individualization, failure and fun”:

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“5th grader Cordell Steiner enjoys spending his time with Legos, golf, basketball and boy scouts. Cordell found value in a classroom that is centred around the individual student through gaming. he looks forward to spreading this concept to other classrooms and schools by telling his personal account of Mr Ananth Pai third grade classroom and extolling its benefits” (TEDx Talks)

I stumbled on Gamifi-ed wiki which has lots of game-based learning activities to try out from cockroaches vs Algebra to the 4 litre challenge. I am sure there are lots of other examples of teachers using this approach to motivate learning but is this what students want? Is it gimmicky or just a fad and is there real learning happening?

Do we ask our students how we can tailor the content of our lessons to their learning or do we listen to their ideas on how they are motivated, inspired and want to learn? and how does this idea of game based learning transfer to High School?

Photo Credit: Sezzles via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Sezzles via Compfight cc

Last month at Learning 2 I attended the workshop run by Jesse Scott on Gamifying Assessment and it is interesting to track his progression from his COETAIL post, Everything’s a Game in April 2012 to his practice in the classroom now. The concept lies in intensive planning of the curriculum content where students work at their own pace through the challenges and tasks to reach the next level. Jesse says that he stops the class frequently to input new learning yet students are happily working through the content. It intrigues me and I have a feeling I will be addressing this concept myself during Course 5!

The idea of a Leaderboard worries me though, as I wonder if this would be motivating for the best students, always at the top yet demotivating for the lesser able, always struggling 2 or 3 steps behind, particularly in my subject of Art.

I like the idea of students having progressive levels, perhaps colours that help them progress, a little like the Elementary reading book stages my son had in the early years. I also appreciate the concept of students self selecting and being able to move at their own pace, a bit like an iTunes U course. At UWCSEA our focus this year is on Differentiation and it seems to me that this could be a powerful way to motivate, inspire and engage, yet help all to achieve if planned right.

Superpowers in Art?

Crazy as my thinking always is, I think to my younger son’s previous obsession with Top Trumps, a simple card game played by outwitting your opponent with specific powers or skills:

Photo Credit: Matt Seppings via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Matt Seppings via Compfight cc

Could my Middle School students develop Art Superpowers as the year progresses? Powers and skills such as: observation, thinking, idea developing, analysing and discussing.  Or holistic skills that reflect our school mission like collaboration, resilience or communication. How might a gamified curriculum help students to achieve these skills and gain points for your profile? Would it have to be just in Art, why not for across Middle School? This would not be a small idea, but when have I ever done things by halves? As a Head of Grade I would love to push this forward with my grade group of bouncy gaming boys and highly motivated individuals.



Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

What if the year in Art was a board game or a platform based game or a quest with a series of challenges? Teenagers love challenge and video games for years have had kids hooked yet, according to Dr Paul Howard-Jones, it is the combination of cognitive function plus fun that makes their integration in education so intriguing. Games that are based on choices and reward are the ones that motivate us the most. Think Tetris, Donkey Kong, Sonic, Super Mario, Pacman, Candy Crush or GTA. Knewton and Column Five Media document Gamification through their Infographic on the right. It is clear that there is a difference between game-based learning and gamification. Gamification is the use of game-like mechanics and systems to non-game situations such as Leaderboards whereas game-based learning is simply using games. Serious games is a the concept of using real world examples with the concept of game or simulation to solve problems. Teachthought documents the process of adding gamification to your classroom on the post back in 2013.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Watching Tom Chatfield’s TED Talk 7 ways Games reward the Brain, I am reminded of a conversation with my hairdresser the other week as I read the latest gossip magazine to escape the mountain of emails I could be addressing whilst awaiting my hair to be finished. We laugh at the images of Kim Kardashian in Heat magazine and I ask, “What exactly does she do?” Lydia grabs her phone and shows me her latest app, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, a Barbie World meets Sims concept, where you create your own celebrity character, dress it, go to photoshoots and see if Kim rewards you and accepts you to help you rise to fame and fortune.

Kardashian app

Kardashian app

screenshot from itunes app store for Kardashian

screenshot from iTunes app store for Kardashian


In her early 20’s, Lydia is horrified at how addictive it is and how she is currently lining Kim’s pocket as she dresses to seek approval. I laugh yet see the addictive and costly implications to our impressionable teenagers and how “clever” Kim Kardashian has appeared to be to get (even) richer. Currently it is estimately made the star $43 million in 3 months reported on MSN news!

Surely we could develop a far more ethical app for our already beauty and fame obsessed youngsters, especially girls battling with self esteem issues. Surely with this powerful concept, we can encourage positive behaviours such as caring, manners, or reading for points or rewards.

Maybe then I can give up the day job? Never!