We’ve seen a transformation over the last decade in regards to gamification in education.
Education is a serious undertaking, with long-term consequences at both the societal and the individual level. Teachers are profoundly influential on the way students think and the way they tackle new ideas and information, and they truly do shape the future of the world one student at a time.
Think of it this way: everyone in charge of everything you know about has been to school, and had teachers — generally, a lot of teachers, in fact. Those teachers may not stand behind people in power and pull strings, but they might as well; what they do in Kindergarten and first-grade classrooms and beyond has a massive impact on what our lives will be like in 20, 50, or 75 years.
So this education thing — it’s a crucial, fundamental, powerful lever for change. We’d better take it seriously.
Or should we?
We have written about the importance of play before on this blog and presented on it and its value at conferences across the US and even internationally. So it should come as no surprise that we believe that the serious work of education can often be most effectively undertaken via play. However, it’s important to know that we don’t just mean a sprinkling of play over the top of a curriculum, but with play as the very mechanism that conveys the learning.
To be clear, there is an important difference between LEARNING — the way educators mean it, which is a way of thinking about things through a process of discovery — and KNOWLEDGE, which has been commonly understood for generations as the goal of school: acquiring facts and information and tucking them away into your brain for future use. Simply put, learning is a skill that can be applied to the vast majority of human experiences, while knowledge is static and situational or contextual, meaning that it generally only applies to some things and not to others.
If you ever memorized anything for school, from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales to the quadratic equation or from Avogadro’s number to the names of the Presidents of the United States (in chronological order, naturally), you acquired knowledge. If you practiced something over and over and had to puzzle at it and work to make yourself better at it, or if you chipped away slowly at a difficult problem over time, you learned. (It’s important to note here that you don’t have to have solved the problem to have learned something; in fact, as we argue over and over again, sometimes failing to do something is a much better teacher than success.)
Most of the adults reading this probably acquired a great deal of knowledge in school; there were timed quizzes on the multiplication tables, and sonnet recitations, and memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution (thank you, Schoolhouse Rock!). School prepared us for college and for “the real world” thereafter, which was changing but not completely unpredictable. Today, though, we know that the jobs of the future are not only not yet in existence, but that we likely cannot even really imagine them because of the massive changes that technological advances will make on our way there. Stephen Covey’s oft-cited advice to “begin with the end in mind” is not a useful anchor in these uncharted waters: if we don’t know what they’re going to need to be able to do in the future, how can we teach them today?
The solution is simple to say and much harder to do: instead of teaching them things we already know (knowledge), we teach them how to learn and discover things we do not know (learning). It’s the only way to prepare them for the world ahead — the one we can’t yet see.
And we have found that for the advanced thinking capabilities of gifted students, game-playing is one of the best ways to learn deeply and thoroughly. To give them opportunities for serious learning, then, we have to get serious about games. So what does gamification in education look like?
PLAYING WORD GAMES
Let’s start at the very beginning: there are significant distinctions between GAMING, SERIOUS GAMES, GAME-BASED LEARNING, and GAMIFICATION in education.
This generally means playing video games, though it is sometimes used to describe tabletop role-playing games, as well. Games are almost exclusively designed for social purposes: to occupy leisure time while sometimes promoting social interaction with others — though as we know from watching children play video games, sometimes gaming looks like a player sitting in a room alone with a controller or a keyboard. Increasingly, though, online gaming includes a social function, because software developers know that connecting with others — even about something like splattering ink on digital foes — is a powerful human motivator that can keep players coming back more than the dynamics of the game, itself.
Game-based learning (GBL)
GBL is using the mechanics of an existing game in an educational context — for example, a teacher who uses the format of the game show Jeopardy to review content before a test is using game-based learning to reinforce students’ recall, or a teacher using Angry Birds to explicate and demonstrate the parabolic dynamics of projectiles.
(I’d argue that the “L” doesn’t actually belong here, since GBL is generally used to reinforce knowledge while hiding the “drill-and-kill”/rote memorization aspect behind a façade of game play — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, after all — but it’s an existing and commonly-used term.)
This term describes the kinds of games used to convey important information or to motivate behavior change in people through building awareness. Every 4 years, for example, millions of students play video games about the U. S. election system in the lead-up to the Presidential elections; the games usually demonstrate how the Electoral College works and why changing the results in just one state can swing a national election. Students who play this game gain a deeper understanding of a thing they didn’t know well (or at all) previously, but most of the game is focused on communicating factual information, though at a higher level than the Jeopardy example above.
Other Serious Games focus on environmental or political issues, leading players to develop an awareness of a particular topic in hopes that they will engage with the topic in the “real world” thereafter. The government of Jordan created a Facebook game called Our City to motivate notoriously difficult-to-reach millennials to participate in the civic, social, and community life of the city. Serious Games are highly situational and context-sensitive, and while they are entertaining, their main purpose is educational.
Gamification in education is the “application of game principles and elements in a learning environment in order to influence behavior, increase motivation and drive participation in students.” (Observatory, 2016) While “game-based learning” is a surface-only treatment of knowledge acquisition — essentially, dressing up traditional review and repetition in a game costume — gamification of education is fundamentally different: it is a completely distinct way to envision what is possible in a learning environment. In our experience, it taps into many of the characteristics of gifted children that demand specialized educational programming to begin with: the ability to think deeply and to make cross-curricular connections, a thirst for diving deeply into complex topics, and an inherent curiosity about the world.
To be clear, the kind of game this piece addresses is not the kind wrapped up in one 45-minute class period. To generate fierce engagement and authentic learning, the game must span a much longer time period, allowing time for “multiplayer continuity [and] extended engagement” to develop that encourages out-of-class effort as well as in-class work (Young et al., 2012).
GAMIFICATION IN EDUCATION
One of the myths or stereotypes about gifted children is that they are gifted at everything, which is simply not true for them, just as it is not true of most humans. Just like everyone else, students with tremendous intellectual capability have areas of relative strength and weakness, and they have domains in which they are inherently more interested and in which they have less interest — in other words, they, too, can dread history class or math or English class. They can tell themselves that they are “not good at” a particular topic, and then lo and behold, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that may make them loath to fully apply themselves in those areas. (“Loath to fully apply themselves” is also a euphemistic way of describing what elementary school teachers, in particular, might experience as outright work refusal.)
One way that teachers of gifted children can tap into their intrinsic motivation to learn is to make them a part of a larger effort to learn — and by this, I do not mean the oft-dreaded “group project,” which can make gifted children shudder, as they instead hear (quite rightfully, in many cases) “projects in which I do all the work myself.” Educators of the gifted who use gamification to teach can instead create a dynamic classroom in which all students are learning together and independently at the same time.
One of the ways this can happen is through simulation-based learning, in which a particular unit can be taught experientially: students assume historical roles and make choices that have consequences that can shift the game in “real-time,” affecting not only their own understandings but also adding layers of understanding to other students’ experiences, as well. Using primary source materials, they do not simply “act out” what happened historically, but wrestle with ill-defined problems, make poorly thought-out decisions, and come up with ingenious solutions that change everything — not just for themselves, but for everyone else (Cicchino, 2015).
In gamified learning, all of these outcomes — the good, the bad, and especially the ugly — are valuable, and all convey learning at a different depth than traditional textbook-and-lecture teaching. Students are personally invested in the learning from the very beginning (no one is ever assigned the role of “passive watcher from the sidelines,” after all), and are encouraged to think creatively to respond to in-game developments; divergent thinking in this environment is welcomed and celebrated rather than being considered a distraction.
The particular form of these simulations varies greatly, reflecting the wide array of domains in which the pedagogy is possible. Students in Moot Courts gain an understanding of the Supreme Court’s workings at a level that is not possible through simply reading about the historical outcomes of court cases. Students who recapitulate — and often revise or reinvent! — the development of European civilization discover how leaders’ decisions about shifting alliances and power dynamics can have ripple effects across both space and time. While many such simulations are focused on history, the same instructional approach can be applied to other domains — for example, economics classes in which students create and track simulated stock portfolios are perhaps the most familiar form of this kind of learning, though by comparison the simulation is very “shallow,” reflecting only upward and downward movement in the stock market rather than the multi-dimensional human behaviors and dynamics that create those changes.
GAMING THE SYSTEM
In a classroom of gifted children, gamification can tap into many of the characteristics that make them exceptional thinkers and problem-solvers, equipping them to tackle thorny problems with new zeal. They can relish the opportunity to make decisions on a grand scale about world-changing events, especially when their natural proclivity to consider Big Questions can so often end with the defeatist answer, “but I’m too small to do anything about it.”
They also experience an increased sense of agency, improving their sense of self-efficacy, which is one of the most effective ways to re-engage disengaged or underachieving students (Reis & McCoach 2000).
The competitive nature that can sometimes get in the way of effective collaboration with others can be wielded instead as a dynamic that drives them towards making partnerships in a different way: they can create alliances — which would be called “teamwork” in any other context (shh — don’t tell them!), a type of effort with which many gifted students are neither particularly practiced nor familiar.
Their thirst for information far beyond what a typical student would care to uncover is richly rewarded, as they quickly realize that additional preparation gives them strategic advantages over adversaries. In these situations, a virtuous cycle of deep learning may emerge, as students realize that those who have done more background work and thought are in fact succeeding in-game — their extra effort (more reading, more thinking) pays off conspicuously, incenting others to do the same.
The risk aversion that can appear in gifted children with perfectionistic tendencies can also diminish significantly in a game environment; students tend to be willing to take risks and try new things in the context of a game in a way they may not be in a “serious” environment such as school (Frauenfelder, 2020). In this way, gamification can remove one of the biggest barriers that gifted children often painstakingly install in their own paths to learning.
Gifted children are also infamously passionate arguers about nearly any topic; their instinct to begin sentences with “actually” or “technically” may exhaust or frustrate parents and teachers alike. This analytical attention to detail and zest for an intellectual tussle is much more blessing than curse in gamified learning, since game dynamics often require that they convince others of the validity of their position. Some games, in particular, require that students argue counter to what they know to be true, which requires a deep understanding of both sides of an argument, something they are not always able to do well; in an argument about a heliocentric model of the universe, it is a far more complex cognitive task to argue logically and convincingly that the earth does not move when the student knows perfectly well that it actually does.
Perhaps best of all, the characteristic intensity of gifted students is a powerful asset, as it allows them to fully immerse themselves in the experience in a way that typical students may be unwilling to engage in for fear of social backlash; after all, if everyone is wearing some kind of Renaissance ensemble, then it’s not a “weird” thing to do, but an expected one. In that case, the costume becomes a signifier not of overly-earnest academic interest, but instead is an outward signifier of “we’re in this together,” reflecting a shared (unspoken) social contract that students are entering this shared intellectual space together.
Gamified education provides incentives that align with many of the familiar characteristics of gifted children, creating conditions that reward engagement, passion, deep curiosity, and earnest effort. When we are able to let go of preconceived notions of what constitutes “teaching” and “learning” in a school, we can see more clearly why this kind of experiential learning can be so valuable. Just because the verb that goes most often with “game” is “play” doesn’t make it any less powerful a tool.
And happily, in education, the better we do at preparing our children to be thinkers, everybody wins.