finding the right fit…part 2

I’ve been blogging quite a bit about my struggles with gamification in my classroom, but that is only half of our TLLP project. The other part is using game-based learning to deliver curriculum.

GBL is a fun way to up the engagement factor in a classroom, but is that enough to justify its use? At the beginning of this journey, I might have said yes because having the opportunity to play games was motivating for my students. If they were learning while playing, then all the better. It’s kind of like sneaking in the learning while they’re distracted by gaming.

Now that we’ve been using GBL in the classroom for 6 months and I’ve immersed myself in research for even longer, I no longer think engagement is enough to justify gaming in the classroom. The “fun factor” is short-lived as the novelty of iPads and apps wears off and I feel like sometimes we don’t get the biggest bang for our pedagogical buck with the games we have chosen. I still see the value of game-based learning, but I’m seeing that the way we’ve been applying it just isn’t enough.

We’ve been creating TLCPs and then trying to fit games into them. That’s been tough. Ontario curriculum is often different from its US counterpart, and many educational games are based on US content. And sometimes–many times–we can’t find games that explicitly teach Ontario curriculum.  So this time around, we found the game first and then planned our TLCP around it. Instead of the game teaching curriculum, we are using the game to explore curriculum. Simple, minute difference with big results.

I see educational games like this:

1. rote learning games–These games use repetition of skills to improve fluency. They might be for math or for learning the alphabet. If you took the educational piece out of it, there wouldn’t be much left. 12. deeper games –These games are stand-alones; that is, without the educational aspect of it, it would still be a great game. Users need to think critically, problem-solve and make decisions that will affect the outcome.  The game can apply to different pieces of the curriculum.


Early in this project, we used all #1 apps. Now we are making a shift to #2. And it feels right. I still see a place for some #1 games (math fact fluency, practicing writing the alphabet for those with fine motor issues, Daily 5 Word Work), but for deep learning, #2 games are the way to go!


badges worth achieving?

The gamification piece has definitely been a huge psychological struggle, as detailed in other blog posts. Part of being a good teacher is not only doing what is best for one’s students, but also doing what is in the best interest of said teacher. Even if giving out badges based on marks was good for my students (and that’s a big IF), it’s never going to work if I’m not comfortable with it.

In my last post about gamification, I briefly explained that achievements would be earned via students becoming experts using certain apps. I’ve now got it all organized and ready to introduce to the students, so let me show you what we’ve come up with. (If you’d like to see the students’ blogging area, and where the badges are given, it’s here.)

Before I do that, let me say a few words about Fiero.


No, I don’t mean the cheesy sports car from the 80s. Fiero, according to Jane McGonigal, is an Italian word that doesn’t have an English counterpart. But the feeling and physical reaction is clear: it’s intense pride and satisfaction and usually looks like jumping up with hands over head. Hopefully you’ve felt it: it may be crossing the finish line, it might be getting the job you’ve wanted, it could be your Leaf team winning the Stanley Cup (a girl can dream, can’t she?). It’s a feeling like no other. It’s a feeling I want students to experience in my classroom. That’s what this whole badging/quest thing is about for me. Fiero is not like a certificate where someone else is giving you praise–extrinsic. Fiero is a motivator, because everyone wants to experience it. That’s why I continue to believe that true gamification is intrinsic.

Okay, now onto what I did today. I chose 5 apps/websites that we have showed the students (some of them have used them to create a presentation already). They are all creation/collaboration apps that students could use frequently.

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They can choose to become Masters in whatever app they want. They can also choose to become a Master of nothing. It’s up to them.

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If they do choose one, they will enter into a quest, which is basically a number of tasks that, when complete, will have them earn a Master badge. Earn a Master badge and receive a special power:

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Students love to be in charge! They earn the power to be the teacher! Another motivator perhaps? I’ve chatted with other teachers and they would love to have some student “experts” help mentor others in using these apps.

Will this work with all students. Probably not. But does any teaching strategy? I do think it will be positive for some of our IEP students who are rarely “the best” at anything. How proud will they be!

Any thoughts?


P.S. The only other person at HWDSB that knows about gamification (that I know anyway) is Jared Bennett. He’s been a splendid resource and I know without him, I would have stopped pursuing it long ago. Thanks @mrjarbenne!


second time around

So we are just starting our second unit within the game-based learning/gamification project. The topic is brand new to us in grade 5 land due to curriculum changes here in Ontario: First Nations and Early Explorers in Canada (pre-1713). Here are some neat things that are happening, and some others that I hope will happen soon.

1. Finding the game. We spent hours looking for games that might be suitable for this topic. Of course, it’s such a specific point in history, it was a difficult task. Then we shifted our thinking away from the certain era and instead thought about what we wanted our students to learn. We wanted them to understand what it was like to explore and settle in a new environment. This made it much easier and we found a few games that could connect. Then Greg found it: New World Colony. If you’ve ever played the board game Settlers of Catan, it’s quite similar (even down to the hexagonal tiles).

2. Success with the game. Having students play New World Colony was great for our students. The game was one of our provocations for the unit’s start. As the title alludes, students are settlers in a new land where they need to compile resources, build settlements and battle to gain more land and resources. Students began to grasp the idea that early explorers in Canada had little and had to work very hard.

3. Student reflections. At the end of our last gbl-based unit, we had students reflect via blogging how apps and games helped them learn about the topic. The reflections were poor, in that they felt the games didn’t help them at all. I was shocked: they were so engaged that they had to be learning something. Then it hit me: they had learned so much via inquiry throughout the unit that, looking back at the basic information obtained through the games, they felt they didn’t really learn a lot from them. So, in this unit, we got them to blog right after playing the game, before the inquiry begins. This is what we got. Much more reflective than before, and a great assessment piece for the schema that they are developing.

4. Gamification.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on game mechanics as opposed to awarding badges. I want this unit to look different. Have quests and achievements. Celebrate progress. Get the kids excited. Explore our platform  with the help of Jared Bennett. Continue to use Twitter and blogs to further my understanding of this. And being okay with this piece of the project being a work in progress.


starting up–musings of the past 2 weeks

It’s been two days short of a month since I last blogged. Thinking back to an initial post, I have not listened to one of my reflections: blog often because the memory ain’t what it used to be.

But I digress.

The exciting news is that we have started our first gamification/game-based learning unit on the human body. My last post described the layout of the badges, which I’m already rethinking. Yes, I would like students to earn badges for the academic achievements aligned with the curriculum. But I want the them to access more: easter eggs that students have no idea they can achieve, character badges such as showing improvement, showing innovation in publishing and giving effective feedback,  and badges  based on achievements within the apps/games they are playing. So much possibility! So little time to design them all!

The apps/games we are using are working out well for the most part. In science, we first introduced Tiny Bop’s Human Body which was the perfect app to begin the unit.


Engaged from the first seconds, students explored the interactive organ systems. Best part for our IEP students and ESL students: no text, nothing to read. This evened the playing field for everyone in that all students had the same entry point and all could independently explore the app. And boy, did they ever explore! After 20 minutes the students were begging for more! Even now, two weeks in, this is their favourite science app.

We are using a couple of other anatomy-type apps: Spongelab’s Build A Body app and Anatomy Browser.


We had to chat with the students about these two apps because they include the reproductive systems for men and women. We will eventually explore that system later in the year when we do our health unit on growth and development, but for now, we’re leaving it alone. Now,  these aren’t games, but they are engaging and interactive informational resources. They are used right now to evoke questions,  curiosity and inquiry for when they do their research project, much more true-to-life than any textbook could be. And we will be introducing the Human Defense app, a Pokemon-like game that teaches about the immune system, soon.


In math, we are focussing on adding and subtracting, with and without decimals. While this is mostly done through pencil and paper practice, we do allow the students time to practice fact fluency so that they can solve equations quickly. We have found several fun ones: Math vs. Zombies is exactly as it sounds; you have to transform the zombie into a person by solving math equations quickly.


Similarly, Sumdog is a game where you have to quickly answer the math equation to gain snowballs to hit down ice towers, akin to Angry Birds. Sumdog is web-based and completely free, and students have been playing at home so they can level up and gain XP (experience points).


3D Math Racing  is a great little app that has users in a truck rally where you have to solve math facts quickly to remain in the race. The equations are changeable (1’s all the way to 15s, easy/medium/hard levels) so everyone can participate.


The common thread in all these apps/websites is that speed is a factor. The faster the number problem is solved, the longer you get to stay in the game and the more points you earn.  Using these apps, we hope, will improve fact fluency and quick problem solving.

Further, as our year progresses, we will be using Prodigy more frequently.

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This is a wonderful, FREE, interactive math game that has participants battling mythical figures by answering math problems correctly. Teachers can align questions with grade level curriculum and the specific expectations of a math unit and they can analyze results of each student when they are finished playing the game. This can inform next instructional steps, and see where specific weaknesses lie. Also, it can be played for free at home as well. The motivation is there for many students to play this game on their own time, so they can earn virtual rewards, level up and gain XP. The single limit to us using Prodigy daily is that it is not yet tablet friendly, as it relies on Adobe Flash technology. In the near future, our hope is that Prodigy will issue a Flash-free website that can be used on our iPads.

If anyone has any other iPad apps or websites that might relate to what we are doing, please let us know. Our next foci are Early Civilizations/First Nations People, and Data Management & Multiplying/Dividing.




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