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Teacher Makes Classes Seem More Like Video Games

There is something about video games. They can engage players to stay up all night to master one more level. Why can’t school be like that?

Matthew Farber, a gamer and a middle school social studies teacher, is trying to figure that out.  He’s made gamification — the art and science of bringing aspects of games into the classroom — a piece of his studies. He teaches a course on it at New Jersey City University and brings his interest in it to his doctoral studies. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s already brought it to his classroom at Valleyview Middle School in Denville, N.J.

“You want to get them to the point that when the bell rings, students don’t want to leave the class,” Farber said.

Getting gamified

The elements of gamification that Farber has brought to his classroom include leveling up, competition, flow (or the way tasks are explained and added) and more.

One of his favorite gamified assignments had students waking up before 7 a.m. to do school work.

As part of Farber’s lesson on social contracts, his students rewrite the school’s handbook. Rather than have his class work in groups or individually in blue books or on lined paper, he brought technology and games into play.

Farber set up a wiki, or webpage that can be edited by multiple users, and used Edmodo’s educational social network to deliver the rules of the game. Each day, the class had different tasks including creating avatars on Edmodo and focusing on a particular piece of the handbook. Only after those tasks were completed would the wiki open for editing. Students competed for the honor to get in first to rewrite in the handbook.

“I told them ‘You know you are competing to write a paragraph?’ ” he said. “Normally that never would have happened.”

The end task was an up-or-down vote on the group’s created social contract with the school. Students learned about how laws may not be what anyone wants by the end of the process, as well as the implicit and explicit agreements people make with society.

4 Keys to Classroom Gamification

What makes assignments like this work? Farber has a few ideas:

  • Tell the kids what you are doing. They already play video games and understand the terminology, such as level up, mission, etc. Use the words they know from video games and it will keep them engaged in the short term. “It helps give them ownership, too,” Farber said.
  • Give instructions like a video game does. This means not providing all of the rules or instructions at once. Tell the students the day’s goal and let them figure out the rules. This helps students learn as they go and allows you to reward them for getting things right. Farber uses the example of a movie theater: There are no assigned seats, he notes, but people still find a place.
  • Build up the lesson. Each day, add something to what they are doing. This adds complexity and keeps students engaged.
  • Make any badges or rewards fun. Games are supposed to be fun. That’s part of what makes them work.

Farber has also seen some common pitfalls.

For example, he said, too many teachers give away badges for no reason. That takes away from the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing the task or simply learning. Allowing students to move to a “next level” is a better reward.

To avoid this pitfall, Farber recommends that teachers start their gamification learning not by researching gamification. Rather, he said, teachers should focus on the most important elements of games, including game flow.

He recommends checking out Martin Seligman’s “Ted Talk” on positive psychology or Jane McGonigal’s talk on games.

Be Sure to Bring the Fun

Too often, Farber also noted, games made as educational tools are boring. Remember, games are supposed to be fun. Teachers shouldn’t feel limited by those tools. Don’t be afraid to look at games students are already playing, such as Sims or Angry Birds, to see if there is an educational opportunity there.

He likens it to other educational tools common in schools.

“Jack London didn’t write ‘Call of the Wild’ for middle-schoolers to read,” Farber noted. But still, English teachers have found plenty to teach from the book.

Most importantly, he said, he keeps trying.

“I think the main thing is to get the student lost in the activity and that might not happen on the first try,” Farber said.

Want to know more? Follow Farber’s Edutopia blog. You can find him on Twitter at @matthewfarber.

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