I have, it has to be said, reached the end of my tether. I’ve had a go at co-operative, collaborative activities. I’ve tried lecturing. (for a few minutes, anyway). I’ve tried “Just sit down and do this worksheet and bugger the consequences”. But the only thing which has so far managed to engage the brains of my Monday afternoon 16-18 class for more than five minutes is competition.
I hate competition. I’m not intrinsically competitive, otherwise, if I were, I would be writing a blog about being the youngest head of OFSTED in history. (I am big headed, mind you). I really don’t get satisfaction out of being “better” than someone else, and generally find that attitude to be obnoxious, and, well, childish. I do get the occasional twinge of competitive envy, it must be said, but it passes quickly.
I do use competitiveness. I use it a lot at home, for example to get my children to go upstairs at bath time (“Last one up the stairs is a ….”) consciously choosing “don’t be last” rather than “be first” not for any particular ideological reason, but because otherwise you end up with tears of “I wasn’t first…” which is frankly a bloody nightmare in a three year old at bedtime.
I don’t use it for adults, at least not often, partly because “who can be first to..” is pretty juvenile and simplistic as a motivational tool and ESOL adults get enough patronising crap thrown at them in their educational careers (starting with Comic Sans and finishing with “We’d love to invite you onto our vocational course but your Level 1 Functional Skills qualification isn’t the same because you’re an ESOL student”).
But the teens seem to love it. Or at least it spurs those who need the spur on to participate properly, and has a negligible effect on those learners who don’t need the extra motivation. So competition it is. This led me to thinking about how to engage them more fully in more complex activities across the course, and, after reading this I thought I would try gamification as a means to engage the learners, especially as some of the stuff they are supposed to do for the PSD element of the course is impressively worthy and well meaning, and therefore excruciatingly dull.
Gamification in education works on the principle that there are rules and rewards in a (computer) game model and that learners engage more with this because there is clear structure, clear boundaries and the possibility of winning. It takes all the things that make you play Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto V for hours on end and applies them to the classroom. Computer games in particular are increasingly complex in their systems, and even something like Angry Birds has enough complexity built in to make you play more. I am a terrible sucker for Angry Birds, and will, when prompted after completing the whole game (all of them so far), go back and try to unlock extra levels and rewards. Game design is complex stuff.
If all this seems to be a bit cheap and popularist, consider this. In order to be successful at a game, you have to learn things. In order to win at Grand Theft Auto you have to learn how to steal stuff, pimp cars and generally be unpleasant to people. In Angry Birds you need to learn that the blue one is useless, and that in the Star Wars version, at the end of the Moon of Endor stage, there are two pigs hiding in the bunker. You have to learn, and you learn by playing. So this can be applied to education. All the teacher does is set up challenges and tasks so that learners have to learn about your subject in order to win the game.
I have started with a few basic principles. There must be systems, rules and boundaries. There must be rewards. There needs to be a winner, or at least some sort of hierarchy of success. I also want something which can involve fairly complex ICT activities. I want there to be an element of unpredictability and student freedom, but also a set up where I have some control over proceedings. I must admit there are some slightly sinister behaviourist elements here with which I am a little uncomfortable, but I am building my own project on collaboration and shared responsibility (the whole team wins or the whole team loses) with the hope that this inspires a degree of commitment to collaboration.
So, here’s the game.
I’ve nicknamed it the New Atlantis Project and it follows the SimCity model. Students work in small teams to design and develop a new country in an archipelago continent called New Atlantis. There are enough countries for one per group plus one extra (for me, later on). The teams will then use their countries to compete with each other in the face of different challenges which I will be presenting each week. The first week involved designing the countries, their flags and their general layout. We did some preparatory search and reading work on different countries, (ICT – carry out online research) before forming up into groups to develop the islands and the layout. Rewards will be in the form of points which can be used to buy resources for the country (ICT – spreadsheets) and challenges will take the form of wars, economic disasters, natural disasters, political uprisings and so on. Points will be awarded for how effectively learners deal with it, which they need to do collectively (PSD – working as a group). I’m thinking that the challenges will be presented to the group in the form of newspapers and articles which they then need to respond to. In order to respond, learners will need to produce reports, spreadsheets, presentations, and participate in other non-technical challenges in order to gain points. My own role, in the initial stages, is guide and general purpose deity. I plan to sit outside the game to begin with but later I have the extra island and the challenges that that could bring.
I have no real idea how long it could last. It might fizzle and die, especially if I judge the challenges wrongly. However, if I get the challenges right then this could run for some time. I don’t plan to spend every hour of every session on this, of course, but rather it will take up perhaps an hour or so of each lesson, or provide a framework to hang other content on. We will see how it goes, and, as ever, the starting point and the finishing point will, of course, be the learners.