Thursday, May 25, 2017

Overcoming Classroom Distraction & Passivity using Gamification, Part One - Theory

Overcoming Classroom Distraction & Passivity using Gamification: Part One, Theory

What do we mean by “the distracted student”?

A couple months ago, I read an article/review by James M. Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Distracted Classroom.” Lang’s piece was responding to the publication of a new study called The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT 2016) written by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen. I have since purchased the book and will be reading it thoroughly in June (Yay, summer reading!). Lang sums up one of the important points of the work stating, “Distraction occurs… when we are pursuing a goal that really matters and something blocks our efforts to achieve it” (Lang). In other words, distraction is not due to a refusal or inability of the student to stay focused on a goal, but instead, it is the result of a situation where one is being prevented from staying committed to a goal that otherwise the student would find important and worthwhile to pursue. It’s not like “the distracted student” lacks the capability to stay focused; instead, something is preventing them from focusing on that which they desire to learn about. The point made the author stop to think about a certain student whose surreptitious cell phone usage was preventing her from fully engaging in the class. He writes, "[W]hen I reconsidered the experience through the lens provided by Gazzaley and Rosen, a new set of questions began to emerge: What goal had I established for [the distracted student’s] learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important – assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her – did she know about it?” (Lang). The crux of the matter for Lang goes something like this: “The more powerful the goals we establish for ourselves, and the more we feel ownership over these goals, the more we are able to pursue them in the face of both internal and external distractions” (Lang).

I've been reflecting upon this idea (here as well as in the next post) in the context of a project I organized for the last 6 weeks of the 2016/2017 school year. It was a unit on a book that, quite frankly, can be flat-out boring for the average teenage reader: namely, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Some English instructors would probably encourage me to drop the text from the curriculum due to its difficulty, lack of excitement, and overall drudgery. However, I do disagree with such an assessment; I think the novel is a beautiful character study full of profoundly poetic passages, but I don’t deny the fact that most teenagers might disagree (and I have to be honest about that). So the challenge was clear: How does one make Hard Times a goal that is “powerful” enough to matter to teenagers? How do I provide an experience where students have ownership over the learning? How do I avoid making Hard Times that thing that’s getting in the way of other goals that felt more important to them?


In his book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (University of Minnesota 2008), Alexander Galloway writes, “If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then games are actions… [O]ne takes a photograph, one acts in a film. But these actions transpire before or during the fabrication of the work… With games, the work itself is material action… What used to be the act of reading [or looking] is now the act of doing” (2-3). In recent years, much has been written about the connection between gamification in the classroom and higher levels of motivation among students. Perhaps one reason for the connection is best explained by Galloway’s point. Students today live in a world ripe with opportunities to change, manipulate, and hack its contents: from Google Docs to gene manipulation to climate change, the world interacts with us, thereby beckoning us to act, but if our classrooms don’t make room for these kinds of improvisatory interactions and interventions, how authentic will the learning feel to those who are involved? Will the goals of the class be ones that capture their attention? Or will the students establish contrary aims and therefore be “distracted”? Jeffrey T. Nealon describes our culture in a similar way when he references current science: “In recent biological research, life itself is no longer primarily understood on the genomic analogy of the book (where life contains a hidden code, requiring the scientist’s interpretation), but on a model of the microscopic or molecular, the smallest particles that might be manipulated by researchers… One might say that contemporary biology is not merely interested in interpreting genes, but in changing them” (147-148). What used to be the age of interpretation is now replaced by one of manipulation, but what might this mean for pedagogy?

One answer might go like this:

-From Understanding to Manipulating: Curriculum needs to demand more than understanding of content: it needs to invite the learner to manipulate the curriculum in question.
-From Meaning to Usage: Students not only need to construct meaning when learning; they need to make use of what they study, molding its contents to their individualized path of action.
-From (Reader) Response to Play: Students need to do more than respond to curricular content; they need to subject it to play, improvisation, and experimentation.

Galloway, in the work cited above, makes a pretty convincing case that video games are the medium par excellence for the shifts in culture being described by Nealon, in his book, Post-postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism (Stanford University Press 2012). With this in mind, I recognized what a drag Dickens’s novel had become for my recent students, which inspired me to try something new: a gamified, choose-your-own-adventure learning journey that focused on Dickens's novel. This time around, I wanted students to have more choice, ownership, and a greater sense of mastery, while increasing their levels of engagement with a challenging, canonical text. I wanted it to be a worthwhile goal for a 21st century teenager. To do that, I had to invite the students into the world of the novel (as a character!), as well as involve them in the process of mapping their personalized learning. Students needed to be less passive and more active when it came to the domain of setting their learning goals. As Alexander Galloway puts it, “What used to be primarily the domain of eyes and looking is now more likely that of muscles and doing, thumbs, to be sure…” (3). Simply put, the students needed a meaningful (and digitalcall to action. 

From Postmodernism to Digimodernism

Plenty has been written over the past decade about the decline of Postmodernism as a useful framework for understanding our contemporary times (see Jeffrey Nealon, Alan Kirby, Gilles Lipovetsky, & Raoul Eshelman). Alan Kirby employs the nomenclature, Digimodernism, to distinguish our time period's differences from the classic notion of Postmodernism, which he does by emphasizing both the manual and technological nature of human culture in the 21st century. He writes, “Postmodernism ‘is essentially a visual culture,’ but… Digimodernism favors the optical only in conjunction with the manual/digital… [T]he figure of the computer game player, fingers and thumbs frenetically pushing on the keypad so as to shift a persona through a developing, mutating narrative landscape, engaging with a textuality that s/he physically brings – to a degree – into existence,…” (166, 168). If Postmodernism was a culture of “overcoding” (as Fredric Jameson would put it) where we as recipients have the task of interpreting the layers of meaning, then Digimodernism expands a person’s horizons of possibility to include paths of action for manipulating the code in play. And this is the challenge when having students encounter an older text like Dickens’s Hard Times: How do we bring the experiences of their Digimodernist worldhood to scenarios that involve mostly traditional curricular content? In my case, the answer was to reorganize the curricular experience by gamifying it, both in terms of structure and content.


I believe that, whatever the experience we create or design as teachers, students have to be a participatory player whose actions have impact upon the process when it comes to planning and mapping the learning. Gamification, in this case, provided opportunities for students to manipulate, differentiate, and hack the process in 2 distinct ways - namely, in terms of the project's structure and in terms of its content:

1. Structural Elements of Gamification (what Alexander Galloway calls "Non-Diegetic elements"): XP grading, Self-pacing, Choice & Nonlinearity, Leveling up & Mastery, Failure meaning "try again"

2. Content Elements of Gamification (what Galloway calls "Diegetic elements"): Avatars/Player-characters, Game narrative, etc.

Karl Kapp, in his article "Two Types of #Gamification," defines the two above categories as follows:

Structural Gamification is the application of game-elements to propel a learner through content with no alteration or changes to the content itself. The content does not become game-like, only the structure around the content. The primary focus behind this type of gamification is to motivate the learner to go through the content and to engage them in the process of learning through rewards.

Content Gamification is the application of game elements and game thinking to alter content to make it more game-like. For example, adding story elements to a compliance course or starting a course with a challenge instead of a list of objectives are both methods of content gamification. 

In previous posts, I've sung the praises of structurally gamifying one's course (go here and here), but what really gets me excited lately is what Content Gamification can add to a student's learning experience. Students live in an action-based world that is full of opportunities to manipulate its contents, and I believe Content Gamification can be a way to invite students into the worldhood of what they're being asked to study, such that they interact with, alter, and manipulate the curricular material in question. (A big shout out to Gary Nied at Cistercian for getting me to think about this; he does similar work with his students at Cistercian.)

So this is where I started when designing the Hard Times game I called "Adventures in Coketown" (yes, the students snickered when they heard the game title...). Just like I've done in the past, I structurally gamified the unit, which could be summed up by game's following rules:
  • Grading will be different: You do not start with 100% average; instead, everyone begins with ZERO XP points.
  • There are no due dates for particular assignments; instead, you have 6 weeks to earn as many XP points as you can.
  • There are 5 levels, and you have access to level one. Earn XP points to level up and beat the game.
  • Each assignment is worth a certain amount of XP points. To earn the points, you must master the assignment (no mistakes); there is no partial credit. You may try to master an assignment as many times as it takes. Failure simply means try again.
  • There is no 1 way to earn an A; one simply needs to earn enough XP points at the end of the 6 week unit.
  • There are smaller, "grind" assignments that you may complete anytime to earn more points
  • Each level also has certain required assignments that must be completed to make it to the next level.
In terms of embedding skills and content into the scaled levels, it looked something like this:
  • Level Zero: Introducing Dickens, Industrial Revolution, and other key concepts; Practicing research & documentation
  • Level One: Chapters 1-9 of Book 1st; Practicing character and theme analysis; Body paragraph composition; Expanding vocabulary
  • Level Two: Chapters 10-16 of Book 1st; Practicing character and theme analysis; Body paragraph composition; Expanding vocabulary
  • Level Three: Chapters 1-6 of Book 2nd; Practicing character and theme analysis; Thesis statement composition; Expanding vocabulary
  • Level Four: Chapters 7-12 of Book 2nd; Practicing style analysis; Defining and learning literary terms & devices
  • Level Five: All chapters of Book 3rd; Practicing style analysis; Constructing argument (logos, pathos, ethos); Practicing empathy; Evaluating theme and character 
The major development for me, however, was writing a "game narrative" and inviting the students to become a character in the world of the novel. The basic premise went something like this: 

You are a French sociologist who recently graduated from the Ă‰cole Polytechnique where you studied under the famous Positivist, August Comte. Your career's research thus far focused on one important question: What is the secret to human happiness? And you've been researching societies in the northern region of France where there has been a tremendous amount of social change due to the developments of the Industrial Revolution. However, you soon find out that your former professor has mysteriously disappeared, and you suspect that it has something to do with the secret war that's been spreading across Europe, battling for the hearts and minds of all citizens, namely the war between the Friends of Fancy and the Philosophes of Fact. Finally, the conflict arrives at your front doorstep in Nancy, France when you receive a cryptic telegram asking you to travel to Coketown in northern England to help "a friend in need." Of course, you agree to go as it will afford you the chance to study England's industrial transformation as well as opportunities to meet the likes of Friedrich Engels and John Stuart Mill. Thus begins your journey called "Adventures in Coketown."

I was afraid that high schoolers would find the idea to be a bit hokey, but instead, they totally bought in. Students only had to reach 300XP to make an A+, but many of them went way beyond that threshold, just so they could see how the story ends. Making them a character and having them interact with personalities and events in the novel directly improved students' creative and critical thinking skills when performing literary analysis. Of course, the structural elements contributed to this as well because grading was affirmation-based, making failure something that no longer needed to be feared. Students had a significant amount of choice as well both in terms of the game narrative and in terms of setting deadlines and selecting assignments. It was a huge success!

In a few days, I'll be publishing the 2nd part of this post as I'd like to share more details about the actual unit and provide some essential questions for anyone who might want to design a similar gamified module. In the meantime, I've provided some links below for those who'd like to explore "Adventures in Coketown" in more detail:

Adventures in Coketown - Spring 2017

Gamification: The Basics (a resource)

Gamification Google Slide Show from ATLIS 2017

Here's a link to resources for a Gamified Macbeth Unit

Previous Post on Gamification

Another Previous Post on Gamification

Works Cited:

Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota, 2006.

Kapp, Karl. "Two Types of #Gamification."

Kirby, Alan. Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. Continuum, 2009.

Lang, James M. "The Distracted Classroom." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 13 March 2017.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. Post-postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism. Stanford University, 2012.