Friday, February 20, 2015

Soft Skills in Gamification

At this point, all of my colleagues are inexpressibly tired of hearing about my gamification of Macbeth. They are nice about it, nodding and smiling as I talk about “fiero”, self-motivated learning, menu missions, and XP. When I mention leveling up, I often hear from them, “Oh, I heard them talking about levels…is that your class?”

Collaboration with my colleagues is one of the real joys of teaching for me, but it isn’t often that we are able to truly connect with our practices. Perhaps that’s why it’s so special…it happens so rarely. Of course, I have to take into account that it might be the crying wolf affect. I shoehorn my wild ideas into conversations so much they probably have the auto-mute set.
But gamification feels different. There’s a certain on-the-edge sense which is really exciting, but there is also so much promise. What am I excited about? Exactly the same concepts that my Macbeth collaborator Jared Colley mentioned in his post, but lately I’ve been thinking about the soft skills that are developing through this project.

Assessing ability
Through the XP grading system, I’m starting to see how students can be assessed not just on intellectual ability, but also more difficult qualities such as determination, persistence, and creativity. This system avoids soft-grading by teachers, such as giving a kid a B- just because they try so dang hard or slapping an A on a paper by one of your best students simply because you know they can do the work. They are now judged by the work they master, be it an A or an F, and I admit, I have changed some of my previous judgments on students in my class. For example, I have a few students who started the project late and their determination to catch up and do well has been remarkable. As well, I’ve seen straight A students struggle with a system that is not institutional, which I’m hoping will help them develop new skills instead of knowing how to work the system. The kids are realizing this, and it has motivated them to work harder since the assessment is more authentic.

The amount of creative power occurring in the classroom is staggering, from creating costume ideas, set designs, and literary leaps of interpretation. Two students have shown their crafting abilities by using power tools to create prop daggers, one has suggested building a sword with his father, and another is now thinking about how he can make traditional Scottish armor. In a more traditional sense, one student has translated the entire play into modern language (don’t worry, I checked for plagiarism) and now others see that as an easier way to make the A. Seriously, think about it. Students consider translating an entire Shakespeare play a loophole!

Self-management
This is one area that I was worried about before the project started. Would my students be able to manage their time (considering there are no due dates or daily requirements) and finish the necessary work to make an A? As I track their progress, I’m seeing positive results from half the class, with another 40% needing to step it up just a bit. There is a 10% that have fallen very behind, but I’m turning that crisis into an opportunity, as you will see.

Overall, however, I see my students plotting the next couple of weeks, creating their own personal deadlines to achieve results. We have tried so many methods at our school to instill this idea of responsibility, but often to little avail. With the concept of ability assessment above, the students are realizing that this system is a true reflection of their ability to work hard, and in the end, there are no excuses. That is a powerful self-realization for anyone at any age.

Safety nets
But there will always be those students. Unengaged, preoccupied, jaded too early, coddled to much, whatever the reason. It’s the old 80/20 problem (20% of our students causing 80% of our problems). But instead of worrying about how to constantly urge them forward through the gamification, I turned the project into a privilege. I began Macbeth telling them they have a choice, gamification or traditional, and that the traditional would take place with me one-on-one at a different table every day, using the curriculum of quizzes, essays, and tests they are accustomed to. No one chose traditional, but I warned them that those lagging behind would be mandated to that traditional style.

That point has come and now I have 10 students (2 in each class) that meet with me for individual discussion and assignment while the rest of the class works on their Macbeth levels. These are students who have always needed the extra time to sit down and talk out the content, but never had the opportunity because of class demands. But gamification has provided me that time. It has even allowed for special instruction in essay writing for a recent transfer and an EAL student (who is not in traditional and is actually destroying the levels right now). Even more interesting, most of these students are excited because now they have the undivided attention of the teacher in a more personal environment. They may not be gaming, but they are still excited about learning.

Jared and I will be writing more about these great experiences, and at some point, we are going to have to talk about the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. This is the secret that every game designer knows, the more intuitive and playable a game, the more work it took behind the scenes to make it happen.


But for now, we are going to enjoy the process of discovery and refinement and joy. Now that’s a word that is often bandied about and rarely truly seen in a classroom. Sure, you may occasionally see the joy on the face of struggling student who did well on a test, but we are seeing it every day, in every class, by groups of kids who are learning, having fun, and are engaged. My colleagues may be bored with my pedagogy, but they can’t ignore students jumping out of their seats during study hall, fists pumping in the air because they’ve achieved Level 4.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How to Innovate an English Class? Flip, Gamify, and Post Online: Some Notes from a First Time Gamer

There are 3 major ways I have re-designed the learning experience for my students to make the English class a little less traditional. Shortly put, I've flipped the class, gamified curricular assignments, and connected students to real audiences via digital platforms such as blogger, and as result, class time is more meaningful, needs-based, and student-centered (due to flipping). Students have been more motivated (due to gamification) because there’s more options and more differentiation for each unique learner, and lastly, students’ demonstrations of learning are more authentic, relevant, and purposeful because we collaborate online, displaying our work to real audiences at other campuses.

I've shared some insights, strategies, and past experiences about my successes with getting students to collaborate online, to think, write, and read for each other (Go here and here for JoelGarza’s thoughts on that topic as well). Right now my classes (along with a school in Memphis, TN) are using this blog site to share work, exchange ideas, and hopefully collaborate on some joint projects as we currently read William Shakespeare’s Macbeth together.

In terms of flipping my class, I’d like to share more details on that later, but one strategy I’ve employed is podcasting (using GarageBand), which enables one to cover topics in a 20-30 min segment that would have taken days to get through in a traditional lecture/discussion format. Here’s a sample of something I put together with some former students to prepare my current sophomores for their study of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play.” (Try here if YouTube vid didn't work)

All this has been great, but what I want to share right now are my insights and reflections about what it’s been like to gamify an English class for the first time. If you’re unsure of what “gamification” might mean watch this: 


In my class, our unit is on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I’m in the thick of it as we speak, journeying through chaotic but amazing new territory with my students, and I’ll confess, we’re not sure how it will all turn out. So far, there have been some profound successes, and my eyes have been opened in more than one way. I must tip my hat, at this time, to Seth Burgess of Lausanne Collegiate School for blazing the trail on this bold expedition and for doing most of the preliminary designing to make this venture work as it has.

Here’s a quick breakdown: we’re using schoology.com where there are 6 courses which function as “levels.” All students begin with an access code to enter “level 1,” and all students start with 0 “XP” points (as opposed to starting at 100% and being graded punitively). Students may gain XP points by completing both required assignments (examples: small written essays, digital essays, performances of play, online quizzes, etc.) and what we call “optional grind assignments” (examples: translating lines to modern English, making props, designing costumes & sets, posting on the blog). Students are not graded on an A to F scale for these assignments; they are either awarded the full XP points (which could be 5, 10, 20, or more depending on the volume of work) or nothing. ONLY when they have mastered the task (meaning some students will make multiple attempts) will students be given credit, and they are not penalized for making multiple attempts. Once enough points are gained, a student will receive a new access code to move on to the next level. As they move up the levels assignments get more challenging, but the students have more and more options as well. Some students will never make it to level 6 and “beat the game,” but many will. The beautiful thing is that a student could stay at level four but do enough “grind assignments” to ensure a superior score by the end of the project.

Some insights so far:

-Grading and failure have a completely different value when assignments have been gamified. In the video above, Avi Spector talks about “failing forward”; I call it failing towards mastery, which is something that traditional grading can sometimes discourage. (I bet Edison “failed forward” on a daily basis and look where it got him…) Grading is now a team effort between teacher and student not an adversarial stand-off. As a result, there’s more trust in the classroom.

-Differentiating assignments and providing options for students have directly fueled their motivation and drive. One student the other day smirked at me and said that he was going to focus on assignment X for points instead doing Y or Z because assignment X was so much easier. He thought he found a loophole; I say he found his learning style and the assignment that fit it best.

-Speaking of learning styles, watching students choose their path of success (and each is different) has taught me so much more about each individual’s method for learning. Seeing what they choose gives me feedback on how to engage, motivate, and stimulate each student for future units of study as well. Interestingly, there have been some surprises in this arena: (1) I have some students (who were “weak” English students) who are excelling in ways they never did before, and that has revealed to me that the content-area was never the problem: it had everything to do with how the learning experience was being designed. In other words, it was my problem. (2) I have some students who are typically “strong” English students who are lagging, and this concerns me. Why the dip in performance? Could it have something to do with self-management? Still working that one out…

-Because students have options and are working at their pace and according to their interests, class discussions have become so authentic! Students bring a kind of what-I-need-to-know mindset to the classroom, asking real questions to serve a real interest on their part. I have always felt like even the most successful class discussion days were tainted with in-authenticity (whether it be the teacher forcing the direction of a discussion or a student desperately grasping for something to say to please the instructor…). These discussions have been authentically urgent, student-directed, and so insightful! I haven’t been in control of my classroom agenda for 2 weeks, and it’s an awesome feeling!

Some concerns so far:

-What do you do when a student doesn’t seem to be good at self-management? What if they tank and fall behind? I’ve noticed that there is a widening gap between students who excel at self-management and those that do not when one gamifies their curricular approach. What do you do about that gap?

-How does an English teacher grade efficiently and stay on top of what is a gargantuan task of providing a constant feedback loop? In other words, I’ve noticed another widening gap between the overwhelmed teacher and the uber-motivated student. How do you keep up when considering the grading tasks of an English Lit. teacher?

These are my thoughts so far. This is all so new, so please leave a comment, suggestion, etc. I don’t have all the answers on this, but I am discovering some amazing gains from this approach as I go. I’ll update more later.

-Jared Colley

Here's another helpful resource from Philip Vinogradov that I got at EduCon this year.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More on Learning as a Community: How Google Docs can Redefine the Roles of Class Discussion for Teachers and Shy Kids Alike

Matt Knauf recently posted on his blog his observations when he visited my class last week. He came in on a great day because I was doing something completely new, and it could have ended disastrously. Last post I indicated that I’d be sharing methods and ideas for how to get students to learn together, to study for each other, and to think more collaboratively. This will be the 2nd installment in that conversation: 

Joel teaching Oakridge students
When my colleague at Greenhill, Mr. Joel Garza, guest-taught my class a couple years ago, he employed the simplest tactic to generate a fruitful, student-driven discussion with teenagers he’d never met before. It was this simple: he divided the room into two groups prompted by the discussion topic at hand: one group was the “this is what I know about X discussion starter” while the other group was the “what I need to know to discuss X conversation starter is this.” One group focused on their proficiencies while the other one discussed their deficiencies in relation to the relevant topic. When they came together, Joel and I just got out of the way: the students took care of the rest, as they discussed, thought, and problem-solved for each other. The framework inspired me to think more strategically about ways to pair/group students together to teach, think, and learn for each other, which led me to the experiment that Matt Knauf describes in his post

We were reading Lord of the Flies, and students were about to enter class for a day of good ol’ seminar-style discussion. I was hesitant though; I didn’t want to facilitate a typical roundtable discussion for some very good reasons: (1) I talk too much (and let’s admit it, it’s hard not to) and (2) the quiet kids don’t get to sound their voice as readily in a conventional discussion-based learning scenario. So how could I factor me out of the equation while bringing the shy students in? The day before our discussion, I set up a google doc with five discussion questions; it looked something like this:


The homework assignment was simple: get on the google doc, choose one question that you are confident to say something about by putting your initials next to it followed by a plus sign, and finally choose one question that you need clarified or explained in more detail by putting your initials next to it followed by a minus sign. This forced students to absorb the questions, think about them, and psychologically get in the mindset to be ready to talk about (at least) one of them for the next day’s discussion. It also gave me instant feedback on what would be the most strategic ways to divide students into groups for a collaborative, multi-directional discussion. 

What happened next: first take a look at the final product from 3rd period here. Immediately, certain things became clear about the questions. For instance, I saw there was a need for me to play a more traditional role as teacher for question 2 (because there were only minus signs next to it), but their feedback on #2 also got me thinking more reflectively about the quality of the question in the first place, signaling to me that a new approach may be needed for that given topic. It was also immediately clear that I should step off the stage for question 5 (where there were only plus signs). The students wanted to speak on that one, so I handed class over to them while I served as scribe, recording their negotiated, collective answers.

For questions 1, 3, and 4, we divided into 3 groups (and I tried to make it as strategically organized as possible, making sure those who had plus signs for a given question were matched with some who had supplied minus signs), and what happened next was described well by Matt Knauf:

What is really interesting about this, is that these are students, who in a large group, would not otherwise freely give their answers.  They are a little shy.  However, the Google Doc, and the small group work, helped give them the confidence to answer the questions, and collaborate in small groups.  Jared told me that there was more great discussion going on in the groups than he anticipated from this batch of students.

What Matt describes so well above was the intention of the assignment: namely, to get kids to teach each other, to think together, to problem-solve for each other, and it was really rewarding to see the shier students speaking up and even assuming leadership. What I was not anticipating was to have an immediate student-to-teacher feedback loop which made clear what questions were good ones, what topics needed my intervention or guidance, and what are the occasions where I just needed to get out of their way. 

It’s a simple method, but it redefines (or at least modifies) the dynamics of a learning community (as well as the roles played by the people involved) in the conventional classroom setting.

More on transcending isolation later...

-Jared Colley