Gamification: Problem Solving in the Fifth Grade Classroom

You might recall that I’ve been working with Rachel Cheafsky to gamify her 5th grade classroom using the technology she has available to her. Well, Rachel has been killin’ it! Last time, she wrote about achievements in the fifth grade classroom. This time, Rachel wanted to check in and write about her latest gamification revelation!  Here’s Rachel:

I am a halfway into my first year using Chris’ gamification system.  It has been fantastic! The best part about it, besides how it has made the climate of my classroom more positive, is that new game mechanics can be brought into the class at any time. For instance, when I run into a problem in my class, I can create a new game mechanic to help build a solution that my kids love. For example, here’s how we helped students learn to better stay on task and self-monitor their volume using Task Master:

Throughout the day, I see two classes with 25 students each. Since gamifying my class, my kids are more motivated and engaged than ever. This is great, but sometimes that motivation and engagement can cause a bit too much excitement: the classroom volume can become way too loud. Additionally, even though students are more engaged, I still have students who need to be refocused and encouraged to complete their Quests (gamification isn’t a silver bullet). I wanted to use gamification to come up with a better, positive way to help kids self-monitor their volume and better stay on task.  

Two weeks ago, I was monitoring my much louder class’ independent work. Students were working hard, on task, and talking at reasonable volume. Everyone was following expectations. It was a perfect! I knew I had to build on this moment and unleash a secret achievement. I stopped my kids and said,  “the class has unlocked a secret achievement!” My kids love to unlock secret achievements because they can earn AP for trying new things and thinking outside the box. I love secret achievements because it lets me use positive reinforcement to solve problems. It’s fun watching students use divergent thinking each day in an effort to discover these secret achievements. I let the kids know how impressed I was with the way the entire class was working. As a class, I asked them what we should call the secret achievement for when the class is working hard and focused. They decided to call it Task Master.

Chris always says that achievements have to be concrete to be fair. You can’t reward a kid for helping because helping isn’t measurable, but you can reward a kid for performing the actions that helping requires. So what does Task Master look like and what is the concrete criteria for it to be earned?

Chris and I had planned the idea for Task Master last month. Task Master is a new event that is played all week and is won by one class every Friday (Chris says: I’ll be talking about events in the second part of The Gamification Guide, which is 75% done!). I created a chart called Task Master and hung it up in the front of the room. One half of the chart is for my first period class’ points and the other half is for my second period class’ points. The first way for the class to win Task Master points is for the secret student to be on task:

Period 2’s secret student was on task!

Before my kids arrive, I put a sticky note on the board, upside down, with a student’s name on it.  At the end of class, I reveal the name on the sticky note and announce if that student was on task based on the criteria the students and I came up with. If they were, they earn their class two Task Master points! The accountability within this achievement is amazing because the students generally don’t want to let each other down. Students try remain on task in case they are the secret student for that particular period.

Let’s not forget about my other problem, volume! This is the other half of the Task Master event. During independent work, I load a volume sensing app Chris made for me on Scratch (Chris says: I remixed and modded an app on Scratch. You can find it here, if you’d like to use it). I plug in a microphone, set the sensitivity, and project the app onto the board. The app monitors the class’ noise level.  When they are too loud and it goes into the red, an alarm sounds.  When the alarm sounds, the opposing class earns one Task Master point. For example, if first period sets off the alarm three times, first period doesn’t lose points, but second period gets three Task Master points. We decided to award the opposing team points because it keeps the game engaging the entire period. If students only earned a point at the end of class for not setting off the alarm, as soon as they set off the sensor, the game wouldn’t matter anymore; there is no longer an incentive to keep their volume down. By giving the opposing team a point when their class it too loud makes Task Master always matter.

I’ve been using Task Master for two weeks and it has already changed my life!  The students are more on task and the volume already has gotten so much better.  They are taking ownership of their own behavior and even monitoring each other in a positive way since they’re all on the same team. The days of stressing over noise seems to be long gone! They are still excited by gamification, but now they are also excited to beat the other class and earn the Task Master achievement, worth 50ap, on Fridays.  It’s a win-win for everyone!

The beauty of achievements in my system is that they can reward kids for displaying heroic traits, completing heroic deeds, push kids out of their comfort zone, and, as in Rachel’s case, act as positive reinforcement for classroom management. Instead of using negative reinforcement, my achievements can be used to reward students each and every time they meet a teachers expectations encouraging the behavior to become habit. For example, like Rachel, I had a problem. I was sick of students doing Slides presentations. How many Slides can one teacher stand?! I pushed kids out of their comfort zone and solved this problem by creating the Outside the Slide achievement. Students could still do a Slide presentation, but if they gave a presentation that didn’t use Slides they earned the Outside the Slide achievement and the AP that comes with it! Soon, students were coming up with new, exciting ways to show me what they’ve learned. Thinking outside the slide became a habit and everyone was happier and more engaged by the new, creative presentations. Don’t be afraid to harness the power of achievements and gamification in your classroom!

Until Next Time,


Silo-Busting through EDTech: Growing in the Garden with the Internet of Things

I hate that we teach education in silos. I hate the idea that some students believe what they learn in English doesn’t apply to Science. Math can’t be used in History. Health and Phys. Ed. are best left in the gym. The Arts and Math & Science just don’t mix. I wish we did a better job of getting more authentic, more cross-curricular, in our schools. I wish we did more silo-busting!

I’ve been thinking about this more than usual recently. Over the last six weeks, I’ve been working on a project. I’m getting ready to introduce Agricultural and the Internet of Things into The Innovation Lab, so I setup a play area in my kitchen to plan and experiment. I have been planning and experimenting on what getting students to use their Design Thinking skills to tackle questions like, “how might we better grow vegetables to meet the needs of a growing population” or “how might we harness technology to improve our ability to grow food” looks like in The Innovation Lab. Our goal is to get our kids thinking now about real-world problems that will likely affect them when they’re older.

In my kitchen laboratory, I started growing tomatoes and peppers hydroponically using things I would have likely thrown out, 3D printed parts from 3dponics, and ground coconut coir and/or Perlite as a growing medium. I’ll post about my experiences surrounding the grow soon, but what was a lot of fun was the building I did last night.

Last night, I used my Raspberry Pi and Cayenne to create a light meter so I could monitor in real-time, from anywhere in the world, how much light my plants are getting throughout the day. This creation has also been logging the level of light my plants are getting, every second, all day and loading the data into a Google Sheet. Check out what I’ve done with the data today (1.00 is pitch black, 0.00 is max brightness):

Lumens over a 12 hour, cloudy day on 1/18/16


Update: Lumens over a 12 hour, mostly sunny day on 1/19/16

Using this data over time, I can setup future experiments that tackle questions like, “how much light are my plants getting during the day,” “where am I getting the best light in my house for my plants,” or “how much light do my plants need to grow better.”

This experiment had me using knowledge you’d find in every silo in school as well as important 21st century skills like interpreting data, computer science, and finding resources and experts since Electrical Engineering isn’t my strong suit (Thanks, Twitter!).

In the classroom, if I were still an English teacher, I would tell my kids we are going to experiment with growing plants in sustainable ways to meet our research and nonfiction standards. I would then guide them in doing their research and finding experts, develop driving questions, design experiments, finding quality resources, start growing, collecting data on the amount of light plants are receiving vs. how fast they are growing using the Raspberry Pi light sensors they’ve built,  and using data to answer some of their driving questions. Finally, we would wrap up by reporting and reflecting on their findings and producing something for a global audience to educate people on what my kids have learned (video, infographic, etc.) and then push it out via social media. The funny thing is, if I was a Science teacher or a Math teacher or a Health teacher – any teacher, really – I’d do the lesson almost exactly the same. I’d just change the emphasis and standards/objectives to align with what I was expected to teach.

I think this is an untapped area of educational technology: using edtech to get cross-curricular. I used the internet, social media, our 3dprinter, Raspberry Pi, and GSuite as tools to help me bust down educational silos. Without edtech, it would be much harder to get cross-curricular.

Whether we call it problem-based learning, project-based learning, passion-based learning, inquiry-based learning, authentic learning, or any other type of learning: we need to do more silo-busting. Let’s start silo-busting and letting our kids realize that learning doesn’t happen only by subject or in a vacuum. Let’s stretch ourselves as teachers, embrace technology, and find ways to get silo-busting with our kids even if we don’t have all the answers; that will just gives us the opportunity to learn together!

Until next time,


Sometimes It Is Just About The Technology

slide2We hear educators say it all the time: technology is just a tool or it’s not just about the technology, it’s about how a teacher uses it. While I fundamentally agree with these types of statements, I’ve noticed something in the Innovation Lab that has me pushing back a bit: sometimes it is just about the technology.

When we were rethinking the Innovation Lab at Fair Haven this summer and applying lessons learned from our beta year, one thing we knew we needed to address was our stuff. We didn’t have the right technology nor tools to do what we wanted to do. The tech and tools were a bottleneck for us. We had old laptops that couldn’t do things like edit videos, make games, or produce 3D renderings. Recording digital arts was harder than it had to be because we were using older camcorders with SD cards and didn’t have microphones for podcasting. Kids were forced to animate with a mouse instead of drawing tablet. We didn’t have the right tools to deconstruct iPads and other electronics and turn them into works of art. You get the idea.

As we targeted the technology we needed in the Innovation Lab for students to learn the skills we wanted them to, we started to realize that we were targeting some serious stuff. We grew hes2016-11-04-13-12-57itant. Could 5th and 6th graders handle the stuff we wanted to put in the Lab? Would they respect the tech and tools we were going to buy? One of the rules I try to live by as an educator is to make my decisions based on my best kids. Of course I could think of some incidents where I was unhappy with the respect kids were showing toward our stuff in the Lab last year, but I also thought of our kids who would flourish with better technology and tools. We pulled the trigger and bought the good stuff; we would manage the exceptions instead of making them the rule.

We made the right decision. The difference in the way our students treat the technology in the Innovation Lab this year compared to last year is night and day. Not once this year, have we had to talk to a student about how they were treating the technology. For example, through our partnership with Dell, we got top-of-the-line laptops. Our Innovators hold these laptops with two hands and walk them to their workstations. They know they share the laptops with other students throughout the week, so kids do their best to make sure the laptop is in good shape for their peers. They don’t tap to hard on the touchscreen and they shut down the computers the right way, rather than just hitting the power button. Get this: at the end of Innovation Lab students put the laptops back into the correct, numbered slots in the cart and most of the time – most of the time – they plug them in!

I also see their respect in the way students regard our stuff as well. A student accidentally broke off a piece of a laptop. This was more of a design flaw than him being careless, but to his credit he came right over, told us about it, and apologized. We thanked him for his honesty and discussed the design flaw with him.

2016-11-04-13-10-32They’re careful, too. We added a workstation where students can cut, drill, glue, or solder pieces of old technology which they then turn into pieces of art. Students have been great in making sure they get me or Ms. Smith before they start. They always follow the safety procedures and wear their safety gear. We use a heat gun, which contrary to many students’ beliefs is not a hair dryer, to lift glass off of iStuff. Students have been very careful with this, too. We were hesitant to add the heat gun, but since we did, we have had students successfully remove broken iGlass for the first time. This wasn’t possible last year. If we had given into our fears when buying our stuff, learning experiences like this would have never happened. We have a Glowforge coming and hope to do some serious soldering soon. Once upon a time, we were nervous about this. Now, we’re excited by it.

Students attitudes are different, too. More than once I’ve had students tell me or overheard them say to each other how serious the technology in the Lab is and how that must mean this is a serious program or how they are taking their making “extra serious” because of the equipment they have access to. I even see our kids self-policing. They remind each other how they should be treating the stuff in the Innovation Lab.

There was a time over the summer where we debated only putting Chromebooks in the Innovation Lab. We even made a list of the not-as-good browser versions of design tools we could use with them, but we decided we didn’t want to our kids to only have access to Tinkercad. We wanted them to be able to use Fusion360, too. We didn’t want them to just use Scratch to make a game. We wanted them to be able to build in Unity like the professionals if they wanted to. That’s what this is about, not putting a ceiling on possibilities. 

2016-11-03-12-46-58Don’t get me wrong, stuff still ends up on the floor. Kids still need to be reminded it’s a screw driver and not a pry bar sometimes. Tools don’t always get put away in the right drawer, but they are getting put back in the right tool chest now! Our kids are working harder, completing more projects, and taking their learning more seriously just because we bought them the good stuff. What we’ve affirmed comes down to this: make decisions based on your best kids and don’t be afraid to buy them the good stuff. The good stuff has had a profound effect on students’ attitudes and productivity compared to last year. If we had given into our fears or fretted about their age, our students wouldn’t be half as productive as they have been this year and would have been exposed to even less.

At times we want to underestimate our students and what they are capable of. Don’t. They can do it. They deserve the good stuff.

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