Today’s guest article is by Jim Low, an educational therapist who worksÂ withÂ special needs kidsÂ and uses gaming in the classroom. You can find more of his writing over at Swords and Stationary. Thanks Jim!
Working with children with special needs has been an interesting experience. Some have different co-morbidities, and it’s a bit hard to find a one-size-fits-all approach. However, one thing’s for certain: almost all of them enjoy gaming in some form, even if they’re not gamers to begin with — and this gives me the allowance to create innovative and interesting ways to teach them.
The thing about learning under a curriculum — and quite a few students will tell you this, even if they respect their teachers — is that it can wear one out. Sure it can be interesting; it may even be fun. Knowledge brings new insights and perspectives, and voicing opinions in class makes for a lively environment. However, it is also mentally draining. There comes a point where the attention craves for an experience not typically associated with the classroom.
In the short term, this may not be an immediately obvious problem, but let it grow for several months and you may start to see the signs: grousing, complaints, lethargy, etc. Sometimes the signs taper out and students become enthusiastic again, especially if they have an inherent interest in the subject; sometimes this just doesn’t happen. If lessons are not sufficiently varied i.e. the same old things recur weekly, then who can blame the students for becoming disinterested, even if they’re actively engaged?
Engaging students through games
There are a lot of ways to make a lesson more interesting. You could do it through watching videos or listening to songs. Personally, I prefer to use games as a tool to get students interested in the subject matter.
In fact, unbeknownst to ourselves sometimes, educators are already actively using games in the classroom to spice things up. Hangman is a game, as is Charades. When I was in Primary School, one of my teachers used to have monthly “Scrabble” sessions in class — the class was split up into teams of 4, and each team would take turns to send a representative up to the board to write a word. This would go on for the last 20 minutes of class before the bell rang. The only significant difference between our version and the actual board game was that ours didn’t use pre-picked letters.
Today, as an educator myself, I use a lot of games in my classes. Besides PnP board games like Codenames and Dixit, I’ve also run quite a few RPGs in class, including Interface Zero 2.0 (Savage Worlds), Risus, Leverage, Covert Ops, Barebones Fantasy and Atomic Highway (this one is a particular favourite among my students). I can tell you right now that I haven’t found a single student who’d said, “Eh, this isn’t really fun,” when it came to RPGs. Perhaps there is a gamer in us all heh.
Anyway there are two ways in which I use games in class: one, to create a unique learning environment; two, to specifically teach certain concepts. For the purposes of conciseness and clarity, I will just focus on the first way for this article, and go into further detail on the second one in a future article.
Without further ado…
Gamifying lessons to teach
Some time ago, I came across an old article talking about a teacher from Montana gamifying his classroom to motivate his kids. You can find the article here. Essentially, the teacher, Mr Nix, transformed his classroom into an “MMORPG-ish” environment. He turned assignments into “quests”, and made students create fictional identities of themselves. More importantly, he made learning seem like an adventure that promised fun and unpredictability.
Mr Nix isn’t the only one to have tried to gamify the classroom. There have been other initiatives like ClassRealm and ClassCraft that add layers of gaminess to learning, and I applaud them. What they demonstrate is that learning in a classroom setting doesn’t have to adhere to traditional methods, but can instead integrate play seamlessly.
I’ve also tried something similar before, and while it was draining for the gamemaster (i.e. me!), it was well-worth the trouble to see my students fully engaged. We used Barebones Fantasy as the system — that was simple enough for 10-year olds. Players would roll dice to resolve the usual situations like combat and lockpicking. However, there were magical seals in the dungeons and portals were randomly opened, causing more monsters to clamber out from them. In order to close the portals or remove the magical seals, the students would need to complete actual class work like spelling.
Gamifying a lesson can be quite the undertaking, especially if the class size is big, but it is doable. Of course, the system would need to be homebrewed to cater to an academic setting. You’ll also need to plan out what exactly is going to be part of the “game”. Typically, that would include assignments and the students’ and teacher’s identities. You’ll then need to tie those in with the system. Questions one would have to tackle include:
- How can the educator keep the students hooked on to this alternate reality?
- What’s the advancement process going to be like?
- What kind of situations/encounters will player characters face, and in what style does one narrate them?
- How do players resolve tasks?
There’s also the arduous process of setting up the classroom to fit the theme of the game. This is arguably optional, but in a bigger class setting, it may actually help those sitting further away from the teacher to stay immersed.
Make no mistake, it is as tedious as it sounds; at the same time, it’s also a rewarding experience for both the students and teacher. The game doesn’t just keep students engaged, it actually builds on their self-esteem and motivation. I’ve noticed a marked difference when students learn in a gamified environment, versus “just learning stuff for the sake of it”. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, and as I’ve mentioned earlier in the post, some do have an intrinsic motivation to learn, but when dealing with students who don’t, this could be a viable solution.
Are any of you readers in the field of education too? If so, have you tried to gamify your classroom? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Thanks for reading and good gaming to you!
My Dad was a teacher who used game-like activities; there was a company that put out world kits that matched the units he was teaching (also in 5th grade).
One was Galaxy, which stealthily taught navigation; each player was the representative of a planet. A few weeks into the unit, half the planets seceded. It sounds more “flavored classwork” than truly gamifying–so journal entries from your character’s point of view, plus “navigation homework” [vectors], etc.
He used the Oregon Trail kit as a backbone and expanded it so various homework assignments and quizzes would move your wagons through terrain. Equipping your wagon with the limited budget at the start was tough but key!
He did feature a Diplomacy game for another unit, and for a weekly enrichment class D&D was an option. So… go Dad!
Awesome! Your dad must have been an amazing teacher to have come up with so many games– I mean learning enhancements in the classroom 😉
I love the concept of gamifying learning and I’ve done some presentations with academics who have done just that. Cathalena Martin (www.montevallo.edu/staff-bio/cathlena-martin/) over at university of Montavallo teaches gaming and did an XP based grading rather than a traditional % grading.
The one big thing I took away from her talk was that this allowed a start at zero and grades are always going up, rather than start at 100% and grades have the potential to go down based on performance on assignments. That in itself is an incredible boon for self esteem and building up the thought process that you can always do better and are always improving.
Interesting perspective with regard to the XP system “going up rather than down”. Yes self-esteem is a massive concrete wall that hinders students more than what society is led to believe. To be able to proxy actual results by going from a bottom-up approach rather than top-down would, IMO, help students to more easily internalise their successes rather than failings.
I love that XP idea for grading, have to give it some thought. I have a chart on my classroom wall and “level up” students for every test they score over a 90% on.
Thanks so much for this article, and I want to give this some more reading and thought. I teach high school physics and chemistry, so not sure how to work it into my regular lessons.
Although I teach literacy, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work with the sciences. It really depends on your objectives though.
One of my classes has a keen interest in maths and science. In order to further fuel it, I got them to watch Blade Runner, and then we played Interface Zero to explore certain key themes of a futuristic, cyberpunk setting. They loved it. It not only helps to broaden their existing ideas on technology, but also to consider the wider scope of sociopolitical issues such as xenophobia and moral ethics. Objectives met 🙂
Some years ago, a few colleagues and I reimagined the Neverwinter Nights computer game by Bioware. Using our experience as teachers and as old school GM, we created modules for the game that would help to teach and assess students in maths and English skills.
We gameified the educational content (or did we eductationalise the gaming content?) by placing problems linked to the curriculum within the game itself. Students (players) would play through the game but many of the quests required academic skills in order to progress. We created associated workbooks, lessons and other materials for use outside of the game environment which would allow students to explore new skills and then apply them in order to progress within the game.
The project was very successful. We won national awards, appeared on the news and even went on to sell copies of our materials to others schools and colleges. Alas, not everyone was impressed; new management and government policies put pressure on us to halt our work and put an end to further development using new environments.
Teaching IS GMing. I apply all of my gaming skills to the classroom, each and every session.
“Teaching IS GMing”
This is a very interesting remark, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. I find that a lot of times, what I tell players at the table is very similar to what I tell my students, and vice versa. I have learned a lot from both groups, be it in moderating volume, alternating tone and rhythm, or simply in the art of verbal narration.
Although it is disappointing that the suits and administrators clamped down on your efforts later on, it’s still heartening to know that it had gained some form of traction. At least there’s the recognition out there, and IMO that’s one of the things that really matters.
I’m not an educator, and I have very limited experience of games in classrooms. I’d hear about such things, but never materialized in the years I was there.
Anyway, I’d recently read about this game http://www.worldpeacegame.org/, and thought it worth a mention. Not an RPG, but a boardgame; the teacher sets kids up as leaders of countries with sets of problems to solve, and lets them go at it. Sounded like a lot of fun.
Or just get them hooked… Not every player enjoys games in the same way.
I like the questions, because they were insightful, but I like the one above the most.
Something that is also really important is to realize that learning shouldn’t be the end goal, but something that occurs on the way to the goal of the game. My brother is a theater director, and he wanted the actors to move on stage. He designed a game where they had to move to certain areas, and exchange objects on other areas. The end result, for the audience, were that the actors were moving around on stage while the actors were playing a game.
So the “how to face challenges” question should also include the learning process. In most “gamification” articles/seminars I’ve gone through, most of the authors have made the mistake of making the learning the goal of the game instead of having it as a part of the interaction instead.
Here is a game that does just that: http://sineridergame.com/SineRider.html
(It teaches handling graphs as part of the interaction of the game.)
And here is a roleplaying game that does that: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/111896/Magicians-Language-Learning-RPG
(It teaches Korean as part of the interaction of the game.)