KOTESOL: Part 5 – Peadar Callaghan on Gamification

I am a bit wary about gamification and education. What I’ve seen before has seemed a bit ‘oh I’ve made an app for teaching so we don’t have to worry about pedagogy anymore’. Because I’m so not sure about it that I almost didn’t go to this talk but my gut feeling was that it’d be good. I was right, it was one of my favourite sessions of the conference. (Actually my gut feeling was right about most of the presentations I went to. I went to some and my gut was saying ‘this will be bad’, but the book was saying otherwise; I was always right. If someone want’s to hire me to pick good talks for them I’m happy to do it.)

There was no talk of fancy apps, the talk was actually about how we can use the criteria we use to analyse games to analyse our classes (investigative gamification). For something to be a game it needs four things:

  1. Goals – you need to know what you’re trying to do for something to be a game.
  2. Rules – there should be restrictions on how you try to achieve the goal.
  3. Feedback – points, goals, home runs, checkmates and also just being able to see what’s happening in the game are all types of feedback. Games would be really boring if you just did things and didn’t find out what happened as a result. A class where students worked really hard then didn’t find out how they did would also be awful for many reasons.
  4. Voluntary participation – this one was contentious because it seems you almost always have some kind of choice. Peadar gave the example of someone putting a gun to your head and making you play golf (he joked that that’s the only way he’d play golf). Even if you’re playing golf with a gun to your head you’re still making a choice. It’s probably true that the more voluntary participation is, the more something feels like a game.

He also spoke about goals. It’s important to remember that from a game theory perspective the teacher’s goals and the students’ goals are different. The teacher’s goals might be to get the pupils to learn the past perfect tense, but the pupils might just want to get a lot of As on their test. When we design activities we should try to make them so that when our students work towards their goals they end up fulfilling our goals for them. Also in Korea it might be that pupils’ first goal might be to save face, we should be trying to accommodate this as much as possible.

The cool bit of the presentation was applying this to our classes. If you think of your activities in these terms it gives you easy things to tweak. If we take an exam (n.b. exams fully meet the criteria of a game laid out above) as an example we can think of lots of ways to change it. Not all of these changes might be good but they’re changes that are there to consider.

  1. Goals – we could change how the exam is marked. It could be more based on long or short form answers; the questions could be spoken rather than read; the answers could be written or spoken by the pupil. There are many ways to give an exam.
  2. Rules – Are pupils allowed a dictionary? How long do they have to complete the test? Can they help each other?
  3. Feedback – This one was maybe the most interesting. What would happen if we gave pupils feedback during the test? They might find out if they got a question right or wrong straight away. It might stop them making the same mistake over and over again and might change who does well in tests.
  4. Voluntary participation – Students usually only get one chance to take a test. A change could be to let them opt into taking the test whenever they feel like it.

As I said above some of these ideas might be really bad, but thinking about why ideas are bad still helps us improve. This is a technique that it might be interesting to apply to a lesson plan in the future and I imagine there might be a follow-up blog on this at some point in the future.