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!

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.

1 comment:

  1. "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."

    Seth, this helps me make sense of a concern I voiced in the previous post. Just as I've seen certain "weaker" English students come alive with this approach to curriculum, I've had some "strong" English students who now lag behind. I mentioned the idea of poor self-management skills as a possible explanation, but I like what you say about "the institutional" - some successful students are not learning important soft skills because they understand how the institution functions, and they know how to "play" it. Gamification redefines curricular delivery in a way that defies what one might expect to be the steps to success in a more traditional institutional setting. This is good. We as teachers need this kind of jarring-out-of-our-comfort-zones as well or else we risk slipping into auto-piloted practices which never challenge us to grow our pedagogical skills. Great post!