I was struck today during a portfolio conference with a student who was laboring under the perception that we were adversaries, that her job was to guess my mindset and reflect it back at me, fool me into believing she had learned something or improved her writing. She declared that she thought I might be refreshed by honesty. After a dozen amazing conversations with kids about their writing, I was rather stunned. Just prior to this conversation, I proctored a final exam. After the exam, a student squealed repeatedly about all of the “C” answers on the multiple choice – he had changed some because it seemed like too many Cs in a row to be correct.

So I believe this about gamification: When grades are on the line, design the game or be at the mercy of an implicit, insidious game.    Inherent in school’s current design is this game; we cheat to win games, to gain advantage. Shortcuts in games may win us some upper hand. When I was an offensive lineman, I was a master of holding, which is a penalty if caught. In fact, any decent O-lineman can tell you how not to be caught, just keep your hands inside and let go if they spin or get separation. Cheating in this case is built into the game play – defensive linemen learn how to get loose, “break the hands” off the jersey. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the design of the game, though, because a certain type of holding gets penalized 95% of the time (hands outside the body).

In school, shortcuts save time or effort, and cheating more so. However, this isn’t built into the game play of school, because when kids cheat or take shortcuts, they lose. Granted, when we offer nothing of value to students, maybe they don’t lose. They do, however, develop odd superstitions like Skinner’s pigeons and erase a few Cs when all signs point to C. As I reflect on my own gaming of school as a teenager, I suffered from arrogant self-perception (likely do still, after all, I blog). The choices I made that cheated me out of learning or experiences like speaking another language hurt me. I like to believe that by being open and transparent, by giving students control over their learning and the expression of their learning as in this portfolio assessment, they will take some ownership and do something that displays growth. Many do, some don’t, and I’m focused here on the negative.

What is the solution to breaking the implicit games of school? Relationships first, transparency second. Third and fourth, choice and authenticity. If I can design a curriculum that is open, student-centered, and constructivist in nature, most students will come along. Designing a framework in which students can learn language skills by doing isn’t even that hard, but it sure looks different. Good design, thoughtful design, is important, because otherwise we stay victim to the implicit design and fight the same battles, again and again as the gamers lose. At the very least, we could try to design in some more fun.

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