Should we "gamify" education? -

Should we “gamify” education?

Let’s look at Hamlet as a first-person stabber.


Photo courtesy of RebeccaPollard on Flickr.

As I have argued elsewhere,  the easiest way to contrive something provocative about education is to point to some aspect of modern technology, note that young people are all over that, and then conclude that educators must adopt that technology or be hopelessly out of touch.

The most dubious example yet is what is being called — apparently with a straight face — the gamification of education. Here’s a summary from blogger Kyle Pearce:

studies have revealed that most students in the United States and Canada spend more time each day watching TV and playing video games than they do in school. This clearly represents a challenge for educators, to respond to students with the technology that they regularly use and understand. The current system of a teacher lecturing in front of a chalkboard (which has been the staple of public schooling since its invention in 1842) doesn’t make sense to many students who have grown up playing video games[…]

Okay. It’s ludicrous to suggest that children can’t figure out a chalkboard, whatever their technological sophistication, just as it is ludicrous to suggest that educators must adopt a new technology simply because young people know and understand it. By this reasoning we might argue that teachers should be talking to their students only on their cell phones since in-person conversation (developed a million years ago) doesn’t make sense to today’s students.

It would be nice if every new technology automatically made students more amenable to formal education, but they don’t. Take web searching, for instance, a technology older than some of my students will be this fall. As everyone knows, search engines like Google (which launched when today’s university students were elementary students) allows one to locate almost any fact available on the web in seconds. It follows then, that today’s students would be whizzes when it comes to factual data. They would check every claim to make sure it’s true because it’s never been easier to check claims. After all, they use Google all the time.

It doesn’t happen, generationally speaking. For instance, I require papers to cite sources using MLA parenthetical documentation style.  Google “how to use MLA style” and you get over 13 million hits. And yet students routinely turn in papers that make it clear that they don’t have the first clue what MLA style is or how to use it. Because they don’t want to Google MLA style. They want to Google when the new Harry Potter movie is coming out.

Speaking of sources, consider Wikipedia. For all its faults, Wikipedia (again, in existence since my students were little kids) strongly encourages citing sources. The Wikipedia entry on Shakespeare, for instance, has, at time of writing, 191 citations and a bibliography of over a hundred books and articles. Undersourced articles are tagged as such. It would follow from the technophiles’ arguments that the Wikipedia generation would see citing sources as a fundamental part of informative, compelling writing. They don’t. Indeed the most common comments I make on papers are “Source?” and “Evidence?”

If modern sources of information haven’t made students want to learn, I don’t have faith that modern sources of entertainment will fair any better. Playing Rock Band isn’t going to make anyone more interested in geological stratification no matter how much you wish it did.

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Should we “gamify” education?

  1. Turning education into a videogame is not what gamification is about. Gamification is the use of game mechanics (competion or cooperative teamwork, levels, points, quests, etc) for non gaming purposes. Google “TED World Peace Game” to see a great example of an elementary school teacher using game mechanics to engage and teach. Very little (if any) tech involved in that particular case. I for one would rather see my kid learn from that teacher than one that just lectures and gives handouts.

    • I agree with you. I used to teach primary school kids and the best lessons I ever had were the ones where I could add a form of game mechanics to the subject.

      Behaviour as a whole also improved with the use of Gamification (reward systems put in place for desired behaviour, points system, badges, goals set each week etc…).

  2. Todd, I agree that the extent to which education should be ‘gamified’ is controversial, and I agree that it’s absurd to claim that teachers MUST use a particular approach simply because students like it, but it’s not absurd to claim that teachers should CONSIDER approaches that students enjoy IF those approaches demonstrate benefits. Most advocates for using games in education make this softer second claim. The question then resolves around a discussion of those benefits.

    I share your frustration with students who fail to use the amazing power of Google search effectively and fail to use citations, but I don’t share your view that, if modern sources of information haven’t made students want to learn, then modern sources of entertainment will fair no better. Motivation matters and things that entertain are inherently motivating.

    Many years ago as a classroom teacher I remember the power of the game ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego’ to motivate students to look up information that would otherwise have held no interest to them. They learned about the world and they learned how to search for information because they were playing a game that they enjoyed.

    There may be times when people contrive something provocative about education by pointing to some aspect of modern technology, note that young people are all over that, and then conclude that educators must adopt that technology or be hopelessly out of touch. That would apply to first-person shooters, for example. But it doesn’t apply to web 2.0 tools, Google search and a host of other valuable uses of technology. It’s understandable that many teachers haven’t caught up with each of these yet, but the clock is ticking. It won’t be long before any generalist teacher failing to use these tools, including some student access to gaming, will be hopelessly out of touch and their students will suffer.

  3. Pingback: Should we “gamify” education? | marmacles [is:] educrazor

  4. Todd has it right: The point is not to actually embed a Hirohito character in the new “Call of Duty” release just to teach kids history. The idea is to create and replicate a competitive, yet cooperative environment, going beyond the classroom walls and engaging education through the new technologies that already make sense to the students.