December 05, 2019

How We Gamify Sixth Grade at The McGillis School

by Stephen Capone, 6th Grade Integrative Studies History Teacher

Day One. Students file into Room 204, chittering nervously. It’s their first day in my History classroom as sixth graders. This is the place where we learn about historical events and develop our historical thinking skills. Our effort here is just one facet of the Middle School’s Integrative Studies program. Though most of these students were in my room for a move-up day last year, and though I’ve frequently visited their classroom when they were in fifth grade, we remain largely mysterious to each other. That’s about to change. For now, though, the students don’t quite know what to expect from me, nor I them. I ask them to sit down quietly, and they comply. I wait for silence, and I don’t have to wait very long. Then, I dive headfirst into my Earth 2 slideshow...

We Roamers left earth over 400 years ago, though the reason for our departure is lost to memory. We’ve been drifting through space, scavenging planets and scouring them of their surface- and sub-surface-level resources. An evil corporation, Poneros, hunts our supply ships - they are the powerful space pirate conglomerate seeking a planet of its own that threatens us constantly. Our explorers search for a new home planet - an Earth 2 - where we can live peacefully and from which we can direct our exploration and mining efforts.

This is the fiction that I describe to students. Next, I tell the students that they’re members of a rookie team of explorers, defenders, and space pioneers, looking for hope and humanity’s salvation. They’re members of the MAGPIE project (McGillis Advanced Group of Planetary and Interstellar Explorers).

Because this is day one of 6th grade, there’s no prior context. and explaining more of why I’m describing this scenario before just getting on with it would only make the whole thing more drawn-out and confusing.

We distinguish between in-fiction (true in the story of the game) and out-of-fiction (true for the real sixth graders, the players in the game) story elements. In fiction, they have missions like sabotaging the enemy or mapping new planets. Out of fiction, students can create maps or falsely caption photographs, all quests being related to the subject matter and skills being taught during normal class periods. All side quests are optional, I explain. Students can earn experience points (“XP”), level up, earn items that will let them break typical classroom expectations, and can team up with other students to complete side projects together - all of which is completely optional, too.

I get a lot of quizzical looks, at this point. I take this as my cue. “Are there any questions?”

Many hundreds of thousands of teachers over the years have asked this question, but I’d be willing to wager that the context here, in Room 204 at McGillis, is unique to this time, place, and community.

The hands go up, and I take a few questions. “Why are you telling us this?” “Who is a part of Poneros?” “Can I be a space pirate?” “Can I defect to the bad guys’ side?” They were confounded but intensely intrigued. Perfect.

I sidestep a few of these questions, answer others directly, and then explain the whole thing more succinctly:

The game I’m describing is a context for the learning we’ll be doing this year. The classroom goals we’re setting are the same you’d be working toward in any well-functioning and contemporary, History classroom. We use skill-based standards informed by professional organizations’ research teams, and we work within the Integrative Studies model the Middle School teachers have spent several dedicated years to develop. In fact, we’re going to pursue the same skill and content goals that we’d pursue without this game. What I’m asking you to do is almost the same as if I hadn’t just introduced levels, items, powerups, and side quests. Think of it like this: If History hasn’t been your favorite, or being in school, in general, isn’t always your favorite thing to do (does anyone ever wish they were on vacation or playing a game at home?), this game might change things for you. If you love school and love hitting learning targets, studying for quizzes, and proving what you know to see those marks on the paper telling you that you’ve hit the mark - and if you think this game sounds like a silly distraction - you may safely ignore it. Keep doing what you’re doing. If you become curious, you may dip a toe in, but it’s your choice. There are no penalties for not playing my game. You don’t have to think it’s cool. You do you. The game isn’t tied to your grades in any direct way - however, if you’re engaging with the class material by doing a host of side quests, chances are good that you’ll do better with everything else we work on that is graded. But there will never be a direct causal relationship between whether you choose to participate or not to participate in the game.

Over the next few weeks, students are brought in on the game details by playing it. This introductory bit actually is required of all students, just to set up the foundation for an opt-in classroom game. Students invent characters on spreadsheets, and I connect my master sheet to each student’s individual sheet. If a student completes a quest or achieves something top-notch in class, I go to my score sheet to award XP or an item (example: “Klaxon Alert: Receive forewarning about a question on an upcoming quiz or assessment - one-time use.”). The updates transmit to their personal tracking sheet immediately. Every now and then, I prompt the students to take a moment to check their game status in class. Some students compete for the top of the leaderboard that I update every ten or fifteen days. Others compete with themselves to complete all of the 25 or so missions that are included in my “Sidequest Guide” that’s available in the classroom in book form or online linked from their classroom Canvas page.

That’s the gist of the classroom game. Now, for the wherefore and the results.

There is almost no required homework throughout the entire academic year, but in the nine months I’ve been running the game, I’ve received many dozens of optional, high-level learning projects and demonstrations ranging from Minecraft models of British ships-of-the-line to psychological profiles of main characters from history or hand-drawn maps of the Mediterranean region. These assignments are completed by choice, are customized to the student’s interests, and are much more personally tailored than a one-size-fits-all assignment can ever be. (The side quest might say “Make a wanted poster” or “Build a model”. What this means is largely open to interpretation - I don’t wish to limit student performance by telling them what the minimum standard is. I tell them: XP points are awarded based on my subjective impression of your performance. Do your best. Students are free to interpret what that means for them - most of the time, they exceed what I’d expect had I told them what to do, and the repeated engagement with class material is good for learning outcomes, whatever form that engagement takes.) Often, of course, we do complete tasks approaching one-size-fits-all in our in-class learning challenges, but students can step up their efforts to earn XP and to earn items from the game, if they wish.

Not every student is engaged by the game, but overall engagement with class material is greatly heightened by adding this context to the class. The students who would have been bored or otherwise disinterested by a more typical classroom management approach - even when I bring all of my enthusiasm and energy for History as a subject for study - a great number of these students are engaged by the game to a surprising degree. Students who don’t give a lick about history will spend hours completing a model of a space-race era spacecraft or will create a timeline showing the progression of developments in rocketry over the course of the 1930s through the 1970s. Those who aren’t engaged by the game, typically those who are already high-achievers who are motivated by scores or by the mere concept of achievement in abstract terms, carry on with their high achievement levels and are involved as heavily in the classroom just as they were before meeting with Mr. Capone and Earth 2. That these students are not motivated by the game isn’t important as long as they still have a clear path to success. What the game does is opens the doors for students who otherwise would see those doors as being closed to them.

The name for what I’m doing in my classroom is gamification. Gamification is the practice of adding game elements to non-game situations (think Delta points or coffee shop drink-earning punch cards), and the research on gamification and the game elements that inspire it is clear: Students (of any age) are engaged by the mechanics of games such as competition, student choice, and the option to extend one’s learning independently of the group. Self-Determination Theory is one psychological explanation for the sorts of motivating factors that make gamification (and game-inspired learning) so engaging for our educational context. Are we really that surprised that games and game elements are engaging? Now we’re putting that fact to use to improve learning engagement and therefore learning outcomes - and its many leagues beyond using a game like Oregon Trail or Math Blaster, both of which were not directly tied to anything in particular or just weren’t good games. This game is designed with this class in mind, and it is shaped and iterated over time to respond to the needs of our Kehilah.

I’m amazed at what I’m seeing in my students; the developments and changes in my classroom are remarkable. They’re noteworthy, and that’s what I’m sharing with you right now. I’ve shared this story with national audiences at the National Council for the Social Studies, Association for Middle Level Education, and a statewide audience at the Utah Council for the Social Studies. Other teachers are not yet putting this research into practice - not yet, anyhow. There’s a small cohort of us spread across the country who have become evangelists for student voice and choice, and for using game elements in the classroom to motivate our students and bring as many on board as possible.

The game isn’t perfect. The students and I, together, are building much of it as we go. It’s iterative. It’s sometimes risky - not to student outcomes, but it’s risky in that it might not be a great game off the bat. Some pieces of it just might not work and might fall flat. But we get it right with repeated attempts. This sort of innovation is not welcomed in every community, in every district, or in every independent school.

McGillis is different, with its constant commitment to research, innovation, play, and learning in all that we do. I am grateful for the administration’s, board’s, and community’s support. I look forward to continuing the innovation as the years roll along. I keep getting better, thanks to the freedom, voice, and choice I’m encouraged to exercise at McGillis. Something about game and curriculum design is engaging in the same way the board game Power Grid is engaging. It keeps me bought in, and that sort of engagement from me is good for my students, too. Thanks, McGillis.