August 9, 2020

Gamifying education and making it personal: Is it a fact or a fad?

Just when I mastered Minecraft and developed something of an addiction to it my boys moved on to Fortnite.

Damn. I’m too old for this nonsense.

I’ve made lazy attempts to learn the ins and outs of the new game, but there is a whole universe of rules, prizes, and strategies to master just to get into the gameplay. Who has time for all that?

A good dad would realize how important it is to keep pace with his sons by sharing their interests, which today includes ranking well in Battle Royale.

I’m mediocre by that criterion (but trying).

Watching them makes me say over and over “if only we could find a way to make Fortnite (and whatever comes next) the primary way we teach content our kids would all be heading for Harvard.”

Which reminds me of Mr. Pai, the teacher I met in White Bear Lake, Minnesota who had successfully gamified his classroom and boosted the achievement of his students.

Mr. Pai came to my attention by a friend who was actively steering black boys into his classroom because his success with them was besting his colleagues. In fact, the district was failing miserably with students of color and the mostly white district was out of answers for how to turn it around – but Mr. Pai was proving their potential.

His colleagues hated him for it because his students developed high expectations for how engaging teaching should be. That was a problem for teachers following Mr. Pai who, like me, weren’t exactly ready to learn a whole new game.

In his class, the district-issued textbooks sat unwrapped on the shelves. Instead, he had crafted his own learning sequences and a series of tech stations to keep each student challenged and progressing.

There were math, reading, and science games on Gameboy handhelds, desktop computers, and laptops that his students eagerly jumped on and off of as if they were in an arcade.

And that thing about competition being bad for education didn’t hold true because the students were so enthralled with scoring as well as their peers on the math-based games that they would keep playing from home at night, on weekends, and during holiday breaks.

It was all magic to me. Why wasn’t this around when I was bored as hell in school?

The educator and fellow blogger who visited Mr. Pai’s class with me were less enamored, and they raised pedagogical questions that were over my head, which made me uneasy about my enthusiasm, but at the same time, I’ve kept the faith.

I know enough to be appropriately cynical about anything in education that looks or sounds too good to be true, but watching my kids learn complex concepts by accessing YouTube and playing Xbox games makes it obvious to me that personalized learning and technology are keys to making learning relevant for modern students.

Others with better credentials than mine seem to agree.

Call it confirmation bias if you will, but it’s why I seize on opinion pieces like this one by Sean Oaks writing in Crain’s New York:

When ed tech software gamifies learning by offering students levels to conquer, points to accumulate, and badges to earn in pursuit of a goal, it gives students more opportunities to engage and delight in their education. Students report that they enjoy the learning process more when activities allow them to take an active role and engage directly with material. Higher engagement rates also make students more persistent when they encounter setbacks—helping them to develop grit. Simply put, students work better and harder when they feel like an active participant in the classroom.

But ed tech wasn’t first to figure this out—teachers were. Both project-driven learning and student-centered learning give students more autonomy in the classroom, allowing them to drive discussions, pursue their interests, and set meaningful goals. When teachers combine personalized instruction with incentive-driven in-class projects, they tend to see benefits like improved student motivation and better learning retention, too. Some research even suggests that teachers who prioritize goal-setting also experience fewer disciplinary problems, simply because their students are more engaged.

Better learning. More engagement. Fewer problems with discipline. Why wouldn’t that be compelling?

Well, there are valid cautions.

Not everything people call personalized learning is actually personalized learning. Education tech enthusiasts seeking brave new roads to the future may be guilty of overheated claims of success. And, of course, as can be said with any novel idea, there is much about personalized learning that can be lost during implementation (as I’ve said before, school districts are often hospice for good ideas).

Still, my position is “who are you going to believe, the negative research or your lying eyes”?

Beside’s Mr. Pai’s classroom, I saw firsthand how student-centered learning pushes young people to find their pace and rhythm in school on a visit to Summit Sierra school in Seattle, WA. Students there were able to show me their personal learning plans with easy-to-understand displays showing their progress toward academic goals they set for themselves (with help from educators and parents).

That in mind, for now, I’m a believer. As I see it, research and experience support me more than it doesn’t.

Here’s more on gamification in education:

Here’s more on the research on personalized learning:

So, what do you think: is personalized learning and gamification a fact or fad?

Let me know on Twitter @citizenstewart.

2 thoughts on “Gamifying education and making it personal: Is it a fact or a fad?

  1. Fad, fad, fad, fad, fad.
    I’m reading currently ‘How I Wish I Taught Maths’ by Craig Barton, a book EVERY. SINGLE. MATH. TEACHER. should read. His approach for successful math instruction is not only sensible and aligned with my experiences, but supported Cognitive Psychology research. Personalized Learning and Gamifying minimize the role of teacher instruction, which for struggling-novice learners is proven to be disastrous. While the charts presented here are colorful and appealing, even the PL authors admit there must be more rigorous studies to measure effectiveness.
    This may sound cynical, but so many of these instructional approaches seem to make a teacher’s day-to-day job easier; explicit instruction, regular and frequent assessment, careful planning of instructional activities and student practice is time-consuming and exacting, but are aligned with how humans learn. PL and Gamifying are too much ‘plug-and-play’: plug the child in, sit back, and “Voila!” they learn. For high-knowledge students that may work; most of our students aren’t yet still need explicit, teacher-created and led instruction.

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