How To Introduce Gamification (or anything new, really)

Introducing change like a new idea, routine, or workflow to anyone can be difficult. Introducing gamification to students is no different. I remember when I started gamifying seven-ish years ago, introducing gamification was actually harder than creating my gamification system. I made a lot of mistakes when I first introduced gamification. Since then, I’ve learned a lot of best practices for introducing gamification (or anything new, really) to students.

  1. For some, change follows the grief cycle – Not everyone has a problem with change. Many students have no problem adapting to something new, especially if they see it as fun. Those who don’t adapt well, however, tend to push back. And that push back follows the grief cycle. The most important thing to understand here, other than the types of push back to expect, is that you must stay the course. If you implement a change like gamification, don’t go back on it. You can tweak it, modify it, improve upon it, and add/remove parts, but don’t abandon it; persist and pivot is the name of the game. You will be doing yourself a disservice and will miss out on the opportunity to model for students how ideas start out as ugly babies but grow into something beautiful with effort and persistence. It also helps to give students a voice in any process. Allowing students to suggest Achievements and Items for the Item Shop can go along way in moving students through the cycle quickly.

Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle

2. Mollify loss aversion – You can cut down on push back by avoiding loss aversion. Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. This means that someone will be more upset if you give them something then take it away than if you never give them anything at all. Losing $100 hurts more if I get to hold it first. In terms of change, loss aversion can be avoided by starting gamification or new ideas at the start of the year. Students can’t get upset about a change in routine if gamification is part of the routine from the beginning. If you can’t start at the beginning of the year, start at an obvious checkpoint. Beginning of marking periods, units, or after breaks is a great time to jump into something new. But don’t preface it!

3. Onboard new ideas – Back when I taught high school, I taught public speaking. In PS, I use to do a unit on stand-up comedy. In that unit I warned students to never preface a joke; don’t tell people how funny a joke is gonna be with phrases such as: “You guys will love this joke.” Just tell the joke. In the same vein, when you are introducing something new, don’t hype it up before break. Don’t hype up the change at all.

I’ve never had a good experience when I told students that when they got back from Christmas break, we are going to do something awesome or different. I think that is because the line between excitement and anxiety is thin. Instead, onboard students. Onboarding, like loss aversion, is another game-mechanic we can use to smoothly implement change. Onboarding is the act of integrating people with new ideas. Ever notice the two main ways a video game onboards players?:

1. The video game only tells you what you need to know when you need to know it. You don’t learn about a new spell you’ll receive at level 75 when you first start the game. You learn how to swing your wooden sword at a rats in the sewer.

2. Great games never break the narrative to tell you how to swing the wooden sword. Learning how to play a video game, the actual mechanics of play, are told through the story, as part of the story. Not as some separate event. When you leave your house in a game, someone on the street may stop you and ask you to help them by going into the sewer to kills rats. This is how mechanics are introduced. As part of the narrative.

These two points are vital in introducing new ideas. The first part of my gamification system I introduce students to are Quests and experience points (XP) because they are the first thing students need to understand. They are the foundational game-mechanics on which the system is built. I introduce this as part of class, in context. “Congrats class, you’ve complete your first Quest and earned 50xp” is all it takes to introduce this idea. Any confusion is cleared up by re-framing the same statement: “Yep, 50xp for the Quests you guys just completed. Way to work hard.” The hive mind of the class is able to put together what Quests are and what XP is. After that, I introduce them to the leaderboards, achievements, and Item Shop when the time is right. Don’t be in a rush to explain the whole system, especially if it’s complicated. This timing also goes a long way in preserving excitement and engagement. The kids never know what’s coming next.

4. Let them play – Any time you introduce a new idea or technology to anyone, let them play with it. Structured and unstructured play are valuable learning techniques. When students first see leaderboards, I give them a 1/2 hour or so to check them out and talk about them. When I introduced Flip Grid, I let students play and make funny videos before asking them to reflect. Do not expect someone to use, perform, or work with something new at the same time you introduce it. Build in time for play. Play helps students feel part of the change rather than feeling that the change is something happening to them.

5. Share success stories – Whenever possible, highlight success stories in your gamified class. If someone hit an new level or earned a new achievement, tell the class about it. If a student has created something awesome with the new edtech you introduced, let them share it. The more success stories you can show, the more students will be able to imagine themselves being successful. Success breeds success.

6. Allow for diverse feedback – Give students a diverse, productive way to voice what they like, what they don’t like, and what they would like to change or add to your class. I don’t always make this feedback anonymous, as anonymity sometimes skews the truth, but I do usually use Google Forms or Office Hours. Students have also left me notes or made me videos. If you let students know you are open to feedback, you’ll be surprised at how they deliver it to you. I once had a student redesign a site I made because he didn’t like it! Differentiate your methods of feedback and you will find the hidden gems of wisdom that your students have for your class. Approach this wisdom with the understanding that students can, and do, come up with great ideas that you should implement into your class.

These are just some of the best practices I use when introducing gamification, or anything new, to students. Now that I run the Fair Haven Innovates program, a program where we are constantly pushing the educational envelope, I can tell you that these best practices work in a variety of contexts, not just gamification.

With that said, I wish you all a great start to your school year and look forward to sharing all of my brand new adventures in Fair Haven Innovates with you!

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.