HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Games We Play: Leveraging Gameful Learning

by Tim Saunders Issue: Rising Ed Trends

RAVSAK’s middle school program JCAT developed from the pioneering work on educational games taking place at the University of Michigan. Saunders, a Michigan alum and gaming colleague, presents ways to gamify the classroom.

Gamification. Gameful learning. Gamified learning. These terms are used to describe a growing movement and the various ways teachers engage students through game play. All teachers do it; it is valuable to think about how this pedagogic tool can enhance student learning and accomplish the 21st century goals we seek to impart to our students.

I propose a simple question: what is it to play games in a classroom? As a classroom teacher who serves as a member of the Playful Learning Initiative (PLI) board, a national movement of educators supported by the Games+Learning+Society Group and the Learning Games Network, I take a broad look at what gamified learning could be. Games are inherently creative. Anything involving cards, role playing, digital media, playing boards, individual lessons, months-long play and sports are game for learning experiences. Even as a one-hour (or one-day) activity, game-based learning—like other creative pedagogies—can more robustly engage critical thinking, collaboration and risk taking.

So what can gamified learning look like? In my fourth grade language arts classroom we compared and contrasted characters and events from Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons and Andrew Clement’s The School Story, two books we used as interactive read-alouds to begin the school year. I wanted students to have robust discussions in heterogeneous-ability groups and dig into what we had read together. We split up into five groups of 4-5 students and then played the game “Would You Rather?” Of course, this version I customized (“skinned” in gamer terminology) for the lesson. Each group had 20 questions that compared and contrasted events and characters from the two books, e.g.:

  • Would you rather be Sal or Natalie?
  • Would you rather be friends with Ben or Zoe?
  • Would you rather go to Sal’s school or Natalie’s school?

After drawing a card, the questioning student would write an answer in secret and then read the question to the group. The group then had to come to a consensus on what they thought the questioner would answer. If they were able to correctly guess, then they would move their game pieces one space forward on the game board (another very simple customization I made with paper and black marker). If the group did not guess correctly the questioner would move their piece forward.

I designed the previous questions to elicit students’ ability to empathize with literary characters and their circumstances. However, other questions were framed differently, such as:

  • Would you rather lie to surprise your mom, or lie to protect your friend?
  • Would you rather keep the books that your late father read to you, or the postcards your late mother sent you?
  • Would you rather lose your mother (Sal) or father (Natale)?

These emotionally compelling questions led students to have strong conversations about interpersonal relationships, and dynamics like loss. I remember the look on one of my students as she read the card asking which parent they would rather lose. She paused for a moment, picked up her pencil to write, then stopped again and looked up at the ceiling. After a moment, she turned to me and asked if it was her parents or the characters from the book. My response was an ambiguous, “What do you think?” She finally wrote down a name, and then read the question to her group. It was met with a dulled silence. Eventually one of the girls said this was a horrible question, and that they couldn’t possibly choose. From there they had a subdued discussion; the consensus was that they couldn’t lose their mothers and then moved on to the next question.

Once the game was completed, students came back together and we had a whole-class debriefing. My role was that of discussion facilitator. Students described how their thinking evolved as time went on. We compared how different groups answered the same questions. One of the students whose group drew the “which parent would you rather lose” card mentioned that it was hard to answer that question. There was a ripple of conversation from that statement, as some students rushed to say they had that question too, and others couldn’t believe that question was in the deck. One student quietly spoke up, recalling that they looked at both books differently after thinking of losing one of their own parents. At this point many students silently nodded their heads in agreement. The value of these debriefing sessions are hard to overestimate.

I teach four units of science, and one of them is states of matter. For this unit I applied ideas from Lee Sheldon’s book The Multiplayer Classroom. The unit was now a game, called “Matter Quest,” with levels, characters, experience points and collaborative guilds. I also moved the game onto an online wiki where students could share data, results, reflections and make predictions about future learning.

While these additions to the unit aided student engagement, I also wanted to add gaming elements that could increase my understanding of their learning. There were 11 labs posted to the wiki as levels. To prevent students from moving through all of the labs without having their work and conceptual understanding checked, I made each level password-protected. Before students “leveled up,” I visited student groups, read everyone’s online work, asked questions about labs, and conducted informal formative assessments. If students didn’t show a complete understanding, or if they were missing important concepts, I’d ask them some guiding questions to help them put the missing pieces together. Once I was satisfied that they had completed the level satisfactorily, I’d give them the password for the next lab.

I noticed students “failing” time and again; that is, students often thought they had completed a lab/level when, in fact, they needed to complete more work. However, within these failure cycles students’ frustration was almost nonexistent. Prior to adopting a gamified approach to a science unit, students generally were not enthusiastic about having to correct written work or relearn a concept. But playing the unit as a game, students encouraged each other, helped teach each other, and were highly motivated to work towards mastery. This was significantly different from the traditional approach I had been using in science, where the students felt compelled to be correct the first time attempting to answer a question or complete a lab.

By providing a more autonomous work space for the students, and decentralizing my role as the instructor, I was free to float from group to group and check in on their understanding while they were completing labs. This gave me a much better opportunity to work with the students as individual learners, and it gave the students more space and autonomy to explore the labs with their guild. They took greater risks in trying to understand how labs could be completed, especially when it came to creating tools like balances with a set of materials (ruler, cups, paper clips, masking tape, a nail). They played for experience points, instead of a grade, and I feel that liberated them to take risks, fail and try again.

My students weren’t the only ones playing around. Students were invested in a game narrative because I was transformed into Creepor the Emissary, a brown-cloaked villain who was threatening the planet with untold terror. Within each level Creepor asked students to solve a riddle. Taken altogether, the riddle answers formed a larger message revealing his master plan for Earth. From words such as “fire,” “smoke,” “lightning,” “star,” and “volcano,” the students crafted interpretations of the message.

The truth is, I never made a final decision about the message’s final version! Instead, I read selected responses that were, “Pretty close to what I think Creepor is trying to say.” The students, by now well in on the joke and playing along with my improv as Creepor, found this to be a satisfying conclusion to the story and the unit. By giving the students a chance to co-create the ending, they had a piece of ownership in the story. Since no one interpretation was deemed correct, students saw elements of their own ending to be part of the conclusion, and this allowed more students to be included in the authorship of the story.

Some ideas for educators looking to implement similar experiences: First, play games. It may sound simple, but play some games. “Would You Rather?” was inspired by the Zobmondo board game. Many teachers around the globe leverage video games within and beyond the classroom. Jeremiah McCall’s Gaming the Past, describes how he uses the simulation “Civilization” to teach social studies. Joel Levin has leveraged “Minecraft” into varied gameful learning experiences. As Kurt Squire notes in his book Video Games and Learning, many teachers who play games themselves find connections between game play, their teaching and students’ interests.

Second, start small. Rather than jump in with a gamified unit, look to start with a small lesson, or even an attention-getting activity at the beginning of a lesson. Give yourself, and your students, a chance to enjoy a gameful experience in the classroom that has a beginning, middle and end, without the pressure of sustaining it for a marking period or semester. This is especially true if teachers are attempting gamified experiences without a colleague to share the experience.

Third, find support. I was incredibly lucky to begin working on a gamified classroom with the support of my research partner, Amanda Pratt, while a graduate student at the University of Michigan-Flint. With her assistance, I’ve expanded my support network through the PLI, and the Coalition for Gameful Learning, a professional development group for teachers interested in the effects of gamified experiences on classroom learning. Your most important supporters, aside from students, will be the building staff you interact with daily. Share your experiences with them, and see if you can find someone you work with who would be interested in trying it as well.

Fourth, remember to debrief. I cannot overemphasize the benefits of debriefing after playing a game with your class. Whether it’s a single lesson, or a full unit, making time each day to facilitate thinking about how you played the game can be just as informative for you and your students as the time spent playing the game. Adding in a short written reflection after the debriefing as an “exit ticket” for students before moving on to another activity is also a successful technique, which gives an important voice to students who aren’t comfortable speaking out about their own thinking, especially in the first days of debriefing when no one is quite sure how it should look or feel.

In the end, games are another tool in the pedagogical toolbox. They are not the only way to teach and learn with students, but they are increasingly important. There are days where games may appear messy, loud and a bit chaotic, but that is an important part of the design process. Using debriefing time to evaluate what works and what doesn’t allows for reflection and revision going forward. Most days games fall together in spectacular fashion, and students and teachers are thrilled with what they discover together.

Educators interested in trying games in their classroom should give it a go. Isn’t it time to play?

Tim Saunders is a 4th grade teacher in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. tim.saunders41@gmail.com, gameful-learning.org

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