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,


Applying Nudge Theory to the Classroom Part I

slide2If I weren’t an educator, I would want to be a behavioral scientist. I find the field to be fascinating. Knowing what makes people tick and why they do what they do has always interested me. One of my favorite concepts in behavioral science is nudge theory: the idea that instead of forcing people to do something they don’t want to do, we can gently nudge them into making better choices often just by changing the way we present the choices to them.

As I read books, research, and listen to podcasts about nudging, I always try to imagine what the nudges being discussed would look like in a school setting. For example, the research on nudging people toward making healthy eating choices is powerful. Simple things like putting healthier foods closer to the register or putting salad tongs in the salad bar over a spoon/fork grabbing combo increases the purchasing and consumption of healthy foods. Sandwiching unhealthy food choices between healthier choices on a menu leads to more people ordering healthier meals because people tend to focus on the first and last parts of things. Another cool example, a study conducted at an airport in Amsterdam found giving users something to aim at while using the urinals resulted in an “80% reduction in spills and overall greater cleanliness in the toilets.” Why wouldn’t we want all of our schools to be using nudges like this to improve the school experience and help students make better choices? 

I use(d) a bunch of nudges in my classroom and am always on the look out for more. Here are some nudges I’ve used to help my students and I to be the best that we can be.

Achievements – long time readers know I love Gamification. In my Gamification system, I use Achievements to nudge students into doing things I want them to do. For example, a student could unlock the Early Bird Achievement if they hand in their essay early. Students earn the Unity Achievement if everyone completes their Side Quest (homework). I gave out the Iron Bladder Achievement for students who didn’t go to the bathroom for an entire marking period. My favorite Achievement? Students can earn the Outside the Slide Achievement for giving a presentation that doesn’t involve Google Slides. This nudge had students coming up with all kinds of creative presentations they wouldn’t normally try if they weren’t given that little nudge. You can see more of my Achievements here on my old gamification site and in the Gamification Guide.

Audio Comments – not quite sure if this is a nudge, but using audio comments has helped me build better relationships with my students. When a kid gets an assignment back covered in red ink, all they see is how terrible they are, or, worse, use it as evidence to prove that you hate them. Using audio comments instead of red ink lets a student here the intonation, inflection, and positivity in your voice. They can hear you’re rooting for them.  The best and free way to give audio comments right now is Read and Write by Texthelp. It is free for teachers and students don’t have to have it installed to get the audio comments. It’s great.

What I do know is a nudge is the way I give them audio feedback. Using the same theory as the menu example from above, I say something positive, give them constructive criticism, then say something positive again.

Separating Tough Students From Their Audience – schools run on a reputation economy. If you challenge a tough kid in front of his or her peers, they will likely push back because they don’t want to lose social currency. Instead, I try to get a tough student away from their classmates and talk to them one-on-one. Tough kids quickly become more reasonable if you take away their audience.

The Power Of Expectations – teachers talk. Every year I knew which kid to watch out for before they even got to my classroom on the first day of school. When I heard I had a tough kid on my roster, I would stop them at the door on the first day and tell them how excited I was to have them in class. I tell them how highly his or her teachers had spoken about them. I keep this up throughout the year because people, especially kids, will live up to the reputation you give them. I choose to give every kid, even the tough ones, a great reputation to live up. They don’t often disappoint. Every kid needs someone to believe in them.

Positive Points Only – On an assignment, I use to put the amount of points a student got wrong on their paper, -25. Now, I put the amount of points a student got right, +75. A positive nudge like this lets students know they’re not all bad. Further, I’d love to see more teachers and schools adopt the video game inspired method of grading: instead of starting kids at 100 and putting them in a system where failure is the only options, why not mimic a video game and start them at 0. When you start a kid at 0, everything they do makes them more successful. Success breeds success. Instead of grading with negative numbers and starting kids at a 100 and losing points, use positive numbers and start them at a 0 and let them earn points.

Nudging often doesn’t cost a lot of money or take a lot of effort to deploy, but they can yield serious results. I encourage you to take the time to understand how and why people make choices and then find the best way to present these choices to them – learn to nudge. The UK and even our own government are getting into the nudge business. Schools should be too.

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