Gamification & Beyond: Don’t Be Afraid to Take Chances!

If we are truly committed to bringing gamification into our classrooms, let’s take chances. Let’s make mistakes. Let’s get messy

If we want our students to become problem-solvers, we need to let them practice it without worrying about grades or assessments. We need to be comfortable bringing gamification into our classrooms without our being the experts. We need to embrace this attitude, both in ourselves and in our students. Our students are terrified of being wrong; we need to guide them toward the idea that failure is valuable. Henry Ford once pointed out, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” 

We had the opportunity to use MinecraftEDU in our classroom this year, and I jumped at the chance. I knew how engaging a world it was and I felt it would give my students a tool to dive deeper into their own learning. But I was in no way an expert in Minecraft! However, several students quickly identified themselves (by their actions) as experts, so I had them setting up learning challenges, especially in geometry and literature. When students have the opportunity to set up the game/challenge, they sometimes make it more difficult than I would! And sometimes, just the venue of the lesson is extrinsic motivation enough! Now I am determined to take courses in MinecraftEDU and discover new ways I can challenge my students to learn core Science concepts with Redstone.

If we want to create meaningful, challenging lessons, we need to craft them, try them out, adjust them and try them out again. We have to become comfortable with failure because we don’t learn until we make mistakes. That’s how problem-solving skills are built, and our students won’t understand this 21st Century Skill if they don’t see us modeling it. Sir Ken Robinson observes that “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

I had gone to The Tech Museum in San Jose (CA) many years ago and experienced a simple challenge: give verbal commands to a “robot” docent in order to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was fun and much harder than I thought it would be! But then I realized it was a great way to bring some gamification into my classroom! 

First I found a talented and willing “robot” (wearing steam-punk goggles and a lab coat) who Skyped into our classroom to give it an added element of robot-ness. It took my students 47 minutes to get one PB&J sandwich made, which was both frustrating and exhilarating for the students. The challenge was extremely beneficial for introducing coding and it gave us a common experience to draw upon when sequential thinking is required. I have shared this gamified challenge with my fellow educators at conferences and through my blog.

If we want to lead others into becoming comfortable with educational technology, we must literally invite them into our classroom to see both how it can work and how we handle it when it doesn’t work. Don’t be afraid to invite fellow teachers to observe you! We must model the teacher’s shift from a center stage position to a backstage position. If we want our peers to take a breath when mistakes inevitably happen, we need to do the same ourselves. As President Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

So much can be learned by attending educational technology conferences, reading edtech blogs and sharing experiences & ideas via social media. I recently took a course on EdX.org called “MichiganX (University of Michigan) Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning.” with one of my favorite EdTech Rock Star Professors, Barry Fishman! It was an invaluable opportunity to more about gamification in the classroom and the theory behind it. The challenge to learning more is to grow and sustain a community of learners who are like-minded. Attending events like ISTE and CUE have helped me cultivate a PLN that shares ideas and collaborates in new ways to bring gamification into the classroom. By actively participating in communities like the Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts or Skype Master Teachers, I’ve joined educators in crafting such 21st Century learning experiences like Mystery Skypes, BreakoutEDUs and Liberating Genius. I have led on-site sessions in my school district so teachers can experience BreakoutEDUs and Mystery Skypes – it often helps to see something in action and participate in it to get the idea of how you would run it in your classroom. The inspiration to continue learning and growing comes from seeing each other’s work and wanting to keep pushing ourselves forward year after year for the simple incentive of discovering new strategies for our students to find success and joy in learning.

About eight years ago, I was leading a PowerPoint training session for a group of twelve teachers in our first Enhancing Education Through Technology Grant pull-out day. I had prepared what I thought was a great talk about all the amazing things PowerPoint could do. I had been told I needed to discuss all the tabs and drop-down items. But about 20 minutes into the presentation, it was obvious I was losing their attention. What could I do? That’s when I realized that teachable moments also happen for teachers! I quickly changed my lesson plan and challenged the teachers to collaborate in groups of five to create a PowerPoint presentation on Disneyland which they would have to present at the end of 30 minutes! Suddenly it was a challenge – gamification of the learning – and they were engaged and enthusiastic about figuring out ways to craft their content!

When things don’t go the way we expect them to, remember that it’s all right. Take a little time to reflect on what happened and remember the words from the fictional yet wise Ms. Frizzle: “If you don’t look, you don’t see, and what you don’t see can be very hard to find!”

Sometimes it’s easier to see when your gamified lessons aren’t working – your mistakes – than to see when they are. That’s an opportunity. So don’t ever fear making mistakes, taking chances or getting messy.

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