Failure is not an option

Gamification can break down the barriers of education, as ‘failure’ is just another retry in a gaming scenario, says Steve Holt

In your experience, how can gamification enhance teaching and learning in the classroom? What are the proven benefits?

Technology can transform the teaching and learning experience, and gamification is one way to really engage students who might have struggled with more traditional teaching methods. The teachers we work with know that if you want to grab students’ attention then you’ve got to bring the real world into the classroom. This means reaching young people on their terms, and using the tools with which they are familiar. This is where gamification can greatly increase the impact of good quality teaching

It’s important to remember that games-based learning doesn’t need to be about playing ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Call of Duty’ in the classroom. Games are clearly a medium 21st Century learners are familiar with and the aim (certainly in our case) is to harness this to engage them in areas of education they would not be as interested in, such as homework, assessment and prep for exams. In doing so, they learn by stealth: ‘playing’ but revealing powerful data on where they are strong and weak and patterns that may arise.

By adding incentives and a degree of competition, students often feel a greater sense of achievement and want to continue learning. Games have the massive advantage that they can make it ‘cool to succeed’. If the game is intrinsically linked to the learning outcome this naturally makes it cool to perform well in the education activity. Learning through games makes it fun, and unlocks a gentle competitive spirit within most students. As each student improves, they stand a better chance of beating their friends on leaderboards and the sense of achievement that comes with it.

Gamification is also a great way to break down the barriers of education, as ‘failure’ is just another retry in a gaming scenario and typically non-threatening. Students are typically more accepting of making mistakes and retrying multiple times in a gaming medium. We’ve seen in many schools that increased levels of engagement results in greater productivity but most importantly greater interest in what is being taught, across ability sets. Gone are the days when games are a way solely to engage ‘low achieving boys’. Games appeal to all demographics now with a massive increase in girls gaming in recent years and all abilities.

Would you say the UK is keeping up with other countries when it comes to using gaming for learning?

The gaming industry in the UK is very strong and the technology side is certainly thriving. It is fair to say that embedding this into the classroom is probably sporadic at best at the moment but there are very good reasons. In a time where there have been sweeping changes in the UK curriculum and assessment it is difficult sometimes to consider new techniques and gamification. Perhaps understandably the UK is not largely embracing gamification at this time. However, rather than beat ourselves up we can use this to our advantage and look at the good practice that is emerging around the world. 

If a school has never tried gamification before, how would you recommend they try it out/introduce it to a class?

Perhaps the first thing to remember is that ‘gamification’ is actually quite a broad spectrum. Gamification is not always about playing actual games. It includes the techniques around gaming for engagement too, so consider if there are any easy methods of trying these without needing the game itself.

For example, rewards and achievements are a core component of gamification – badges, certificates, stickers are not new and are all tried and tested methods for engaging students. Traditionally these are largely generic for ‘Good work’ or ‘Headteachers award’ and so are uncertain in when a student can achieve them or sometimes even what the criteria was.

An easy enhancement would be to expand this to create specific ‘challenges’ for the student to ‘unlock’ new badges and to have a journey of many different achievements to aim for. Many commercial games, particularly apps and ‘mini games’ use challenges and achievements as the principle engagement method. Games may use things like logging in daily, spending X amount of time, doing something 10 times – all short term goals that are easy steps for the student to clearly understand, define and achieve. Rewards used in this way are a really easy way to encourage the behaviours we want to replicate – perseverance, effort and problem solving – which don’t create work or fundamentally change teaching. They are an easy first step into gamification.

Taking this further over time would be leaderboards showing who has most badges or achievements unlocked. Better still: allow the students themselves to design this achievement system so they are invested in it and can decide if all rewards are worth the same or if certain behaviours or efforts are worth more points than something else. Leaderboards (and gamification generally) often offer no more than simple ‘bragging rights’ as to who is doing well. If the achievements are earned through effort then there is no reason all students can’t compete on an even playing field regardless of ability.

There are many more techniques from the gaming industry that can be easily implemented, but the key point is that games offer instant feedback. This is something students enjoy tremendously: what they did right, what they did wrong, the ability to retry without fear until they get better or overcome an obstacle. This is perhaps easier in some circumstances than others but think of ways of giving the students instant gratification for what they have completed without huge amounts of marking and extra work for the teacher.

Are teachers still hesitant to blur the lines between ‘learn time’ and ‘play time?’ 

Young people today grow up in a vastly different world than was the case 20 years ago. They are surrounded and immersed in technology, and have grown up using the latest devices and gadgets from an incredibly young age. Video games in particular are an intrinsic part of their everyday life – the average young person racks up somewhere in the region of 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21.

Parents and a teaching generation that perhaps were not exposed to such technology when growing up see this as ‘wasted’ time that could be better spent on other endeavours. Some of the time this may be true, but this medium has so gripped the 21st century generation we need to look at the skills it does develop and how we can harness them better for educational development.

Problem solving, collaboration, IT literacy and confidence are all evident in every game, every day. This has value if it is recognised and teachers can find ways of referencing it in the problems and challenges required at subject level.

Schools can’t reverse that trend – but by embracing technology, they can ensure students share and interact each day in a safe and secure environment. Blurring learn and play time does not have to be to the detriment of teaching and learning. As young people use technology throughout their lives, activities in the classroom can be continued at home and learning becomes increasingly personalised to a particular child, as they are able to access resources wherever and whenever they want.

Will we see more of this teaching technique in the months ahead? How do you think it will develop?

Using the latest technology and techniques such as gamification can be a daunting experience for many teachers, and they need time and support to get to grips with this. But technology clearly isn’t going away, and so teachers will have to get used to using these kind of techniques to engage their students, otherwise they run the danger of being left behind.

For years we have talked about students ‘powering down’ in terms of the IT available to them in school compared to at home and this divide is now increasing beyond hardware and access to devices into the methods of learning and relaying information. We recently undertook a comprehensive survey of young people and their experiences at school, and we found that the overwhelming majority of pupils (84%) use devices or gadgets that are more advanced outside of school than those they are taught with in school.

A student will willingly invest 100s of hours at home learning how to perfect a gaming technique to get to the next level or beat friends, but gets bored and disengaged very quickly in new knowledge acquisition in the classroom and does not have the same desire to progress.

This opens up huge possibilities for teachers to engage their students in the classroom, and is a really exciting prospect. While some teachers will understandably remain uncomfortable with technology and the techniques now necessary to engage young people, fundamentally gamification can improve both attainment and the teaching and learning experience, and is here to stay.

Steve Holt is Product Director at Frog Education.