It’s discouraging to all stakeholders that annually, about 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school. And “Pathways to Prosperity” reports that just 56% of college attendees complete a degree. Fingers point all directions but nothing changes the stark truth: Something causes kids to hate learning so much that they’d rather face their future without the knowledge or skills to do so successfully.
Solutions to this problem abound but one of the most popular with K-16 educators — because it works — is to gamify learning. Wikipedia defines “gamification” as:
“an educational approach to motivate students to learn by using video game design and game elements in learning environments. The goal is to maximize enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning.”
Games remind kids of days when they chose their own seats, worked at their own pace, and responded to their own interests. Through childhood games, they learned social skills, problem-solving, sequencing, and a whole bunch more while they thought they were doing a puzzle, building blocks, or playing dodgeball.
Fast forward to formal schooling. As early as Kindergarten, kids are stuck into classrooms where play is replaced with rote drills, repetition, and growing boredom. It’s taken the experts decades but finally, the value of applying gameplaying characteristics to learning is being recognized as a formidable approach. I’ve written much about the use of games and simulations but today, I want to focus on the student as maker, where they create the game, troubleshoot problems, and refine the end result — exactly the traits valued by coding and programming.
Here are some of my favorite game creation tools for students:
Ask a Tech Teacher contributor, James Lovelock, has been thinking about the nexus of student engagement, online games, and learning. Here are his thoughts:
Student engagement has long been a point of conversation for educators, the concept that students must have an active interest in order to get the best benefit from instruction is hardly a new thought. Having said that, the ways in which that engagement is best achieved is a source of dispute, particularly depending on which philosophy on learning is held. Competition is definitely one of the more disputed forms.
Usually criticism of the idea of competition as a tool is that where some people win, other people must lose and that can serve to disengage them from learning. This sort of criticism is particular of classrooms where a couple of students may be seen to be dominant in certain areas and every other student conceivably looks at them and thinks inwardly “what is the point?” and proceeds to tap out, achieving the opposite of the intended engagement. To be fair, when competition is implemented without consideration to purpose or outcome for an entire class, this can happen.
Having said that, competition when used in a considered manner can be a highly effective tool for engagement in learning. A common example is that of a spelling test where rather than students competing individually they compete in groups, mixing together students who are stronger and weaker in the challenge so that those who would otherwise disengage are able to participate.
The first thing most teachers think about when discussing gamified learning is the online math games kids play. Maybe Vocabulary.com and its spelling games come to mind next. But those webtools exemplify where the gamification of education started. Their approach is good but way down the SAMR pyramid to what can be done today, easily, in classrooms.
Let me step back a moment to explain the SAMR Model as it applies to the use of technology in education. It is used to discuss the implementation of technology in the classroom by organizing tech-in-education tools into four categories or types of usage:
- Substitution: Technology is a direct replacement for something, e.g. ebooks in place of print books or online math drills in place of worksheets.
- Augmentation: Technology not only replaces a traditional tool but adds functionality, e.g. using Google Earth to explore the setting of a story rather than a map
- Modification: Technology allows for a significant change, e.g. using screencasts to explain a process.
- Redefinition: Technology allows for the creation of completely new ways of learning that were previously not possible. e.g. using virtual meeting tools (like Google Hangouts) to include housebound students in a class.
The SAMR Model directly relates to the evolution of games in education, from simply substituting online drills for worksheets to creating new ways to learn that students love. The gamification of learning became popular at first because students exhibited great aptitude and tolerance for learning new material when gameplaying, but the reason that popularity lasted is even more simple: Applying the characteristics of gameplaying to learning works! The most well-known example is the viral popularity of Minecraft and the way it has been applied to every academic corner of learning.
Here are some general ideas of how you can gamify learning in your class, on a budget and without extensive retraining:
Zapzapmath is a free gamified way to teach math skills that’s tied to many national and international standards (like Common Core). Its format is colorful and engaging, music lively, and layout intuitive. The over 150 games are fast-paced and interactive, and cover over 180 math topics. Students direct their learning with a unique space-themed avatar (called a ‘mathling’) that identifies their work and keeps them engaged.
My favorite characteristics of Zapzapmap Math include:
- Math topics are delivered in a module-oriented manner. Topics include:
– Pre-school Math
- Each math topic is divided into four skills: Training, Accuracy, Speed and Mission, with appropriate games to support each goal.
- Games advance as the child progresses.
- Games are more than rote drills, intended to train critical thinking, problem-solving, and promote logic in decisions.
- Games can be played offline, in multiple languages (with more planned before the end of the year).
- Teachers can add quizzes that assess student math knowledge by selecting the grade, the topic, one of the suggested Zapzpmath games, and the duration.
- Teachers (or homeschooling parents) can track the progress of up to thirty students organized into a class where they are able to gauge learning outcomes via a web-based Learning Analytics Dashboard. Each child’s progress can be viewed remotely as they play Zapzapmath.
- The Education account includes a student report card so all stakeholders can track student progress.
- Zapzapmath can be played as an app or on a PC via a download.
Ask a Tech Teacher guest blogger, Karen Dikson, has put together a collection of online gamified sites that will help your students with their writing: You think the textbooks for today’s generations of students are way more interesting than the once you had? Ask your students. They still think the lessons are boring. If you don’t do anything to make the studying material more appealing, you can’t expect great engagement and results in your classroom.
Netherlands-based Digipuzzle is an online educational resource that offers hundreds of G-rated learning games for younger audiences, many in both Spanish and English. Topics include math, animals, typing, geography, spelling, letter recognition, holidays, seasons, dinosaurs, USA, other games, and more. Many of these are divided into subcategories — for example: Math includes games and counting, fractions, addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Digipuzzle even offers holiday games. The site is easy to navigate, fun to use, and completely free. It is the labor of love from Marcel van de Wouw. It includes not only lots of themed puzzles, but Sudoku, line puzzles, search puzzles, dot-to-dot, tangrams, mosaics, and more.
You can use Digipuzzle on the web or as a mobile app.
Each game includes a sidebar with easy-to-understand icons that answer questions, access settings, and click you through available games.
Each game can be played at the level a student is comfortable — easy, normal, or hard — and can include audio or silent.
One of the hardest challenges for teachers is how to engage students in core subjects such as geography. It’s about mountains and rocks and valleys that haven’t changed for thousands of years. Why is that interesting? If you aren’t a geography buff, you’re probably nodding. You know what I mean. But watch how quickly the fourteen resources below morph geography from dusty to dynamic:
2-minute Geology is a collection of two-minute videos that address the geology of locations around the world. The presenter is clever, the taping professional, and the experience mesmerizing as students are immersed in the importance of geology around the world–in just two minutes.
Continents Explained is a four-minute humorous video that discusses the difficulty of defining continents on our planet (with a brief cameo from a Minecraft-like character). I came away scratching my head, wondering how the heck the experts ended up with the seven continents we all accept rather than four–or twelve. The video is engaging, energizing, and informative. This is a must for any discussion on continents.
Multi-award-winning Minecraft is a game of survival. You don’t ‘level up’; you build, explore, and survive whatever comes at you by placing blocks and going on adventures, either alone or with classmates. As you do, you explore, gather resources, craft, and fight for your survival.
At the core of every action is problem-solving: Minecraft encourages kids to tinker.
“You’re not complaining to get the corporate overlord to fix it — you just have to fix it yourself.”
It can be played on Linux, Mac, Windows, XBox, PlayStation, Wii, iOS, Android, Raspberry Pi, Kindle Fire, and probably a few more digital devices. It can run in a variety of modes. The default one — called ‘traditional’ mode– — includes six options:
- Survival mode–players gather includes resources (such as wood and stone) found in the environment to craft survival items. Depending on the difficulty, monsters spawn in areas outside a certain radius of the character, requiring the player to build a shelter at night.
- Hardcore mode–a variant of survival mode that differs primarily in that it is locked into the hardest gameplay setting. When a player dies on a server set to hardcore mode, the player is banned from that server.
- Creative mode–players have access to all of the resources and items in the game through the inventory menu, and can place or remove them instantly. In this mode, players focus on building and creating large projects.
- Adventure mode–designed specifically so that players can experience user-crafted custom maps and adventures.
- Spectator mode–players can teleport to other players in the world.
- Multiplayer–uses player-hosted and business-hosted servers and enables multiple players to interact and communicate with each other on a single world
“Never dig straight down.”
It can also be run in Story Mode (a narrative-driven adventure developed by Telltale Games where the decisions made by players influence adventures) or Realms (a simple way to enjoy an online Minecraft world with an approved set of friends–the owner of a Realm needs to pay a fee). Also available is Code.org’s Hour of Code Minecraft adventure.
“One does not simply play Minecraft for half an hour.”
There are over 100 million registered Minecraft players and it’s the third-best-selling video game in history, after Tetris and Wii Sports. The great news, just out this summer: Now it’s freemium (free at first with stipulations), courtesy of Microsoft. Minecraft Education Edition is designed specifically for classroom use and gives teachers the tools they need to use Minecraft in their lessons.