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How to gamify your English class. Step 1

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TEACHING TEENS IN THE 21st CENTURY

As a teacher and a mother of a 14-year-old son every day I witness the struggle between traditional education and millennial teens born in the early 2000s.

My son spends hours playing Kerbal Space. It is a computer game where your goal is to build a spaceship capable of carrying its crew into space without killing them. The game is very realistic — you have to apply your knowledge of physics and mathematics to succeed. It took him 2 years to make the first successful launch.

But when it’s time to do his homework on physics or mathematics he finds thousands of excuses not to do it.

One of the most popular Youtube bloggers is PewDiePie. His audience is more than 36 million people. In his videos he comments on the way you can play a computer game in a fun way and millions of people follow him. My son watches his channel in English for hours but when I ask him to listen to an audio for his English class he is reluc- tant.

My son is just one of his kind. Millions of modern teens have similar interests, spend most of their time online and find school physics and English classes boring. As a teacher of teens I face this challenge every day. Can I create an edu- cational programme for my students that easily competes with a wide range of engaging computer games and online services?

These days more and more teachers have started using computer games at their English lessons. But there is some- thing really wrong in the way digital games are used for ELT. Quite often a teacher cannot see a big difference between us- ing videos, computer games or other images. Digital games are used only as a stimulus for further speaking or writing practice, while the traditional framework of the lesson re- mains unchanged.

Students play fun video games and then they stop and get an assignment and have to write a composition about the game they have played. Wouldn’t that be frustrating for them?

We shouldn’t use games only as rewards (do all the tasks and then we can play a game at the end of the class), warmers, time-fillers and media. We need to redesign the whole lesson and make it similar to computer games in structure. If we want to engage modern students, we should move to an absolutely new pedagogical approach based on game-design principles.

I’m a firm believer that the next step in ELT must be applying gamification to our lessons.

WHAT IS GAMIFICATION?

Gamification has become a buzzword recently. Many educational and business institutes already use gamification to increase motivation: Khan Academy, ClassDojo, Classcraft, Ribbon Hero, DuoLingo, Zombies Run and many more. The official definition of gamification is the use of

game mechanics and game elements in a non-game context. It helps to change people’s behavior and adds a playful spirit to some boring and routine things.

Gamification in our mind is closely connected with technology. But examples of gamification can also be found offline. There is an example of offline gamification in the Manchester Museum of Football. The biggest problem in public toilets for men is to keep the toilet bowl clean. In order to motivate men to aim accurately, they put a small soccer goal with a small ball right into the toilet bowl. When men use the toilet they try to score a goal. The objective of the museum was to change men’s behavior and help them keep the toilet clean. It was achieved by means of gamifica- tion.

GAMIFICATION OF AN ENGLISH CLASS

Looking at a range of successful examples of gamification, I came up with the idea to use gamification at my language school. We decided to do it completely offline and without technology. My idea was to explore if we can apply game principles to English lessons.

In this and the following articles, I’d like to share my 4-year experience of how to gamify your English class offline.

Gamification framework can be presented in the form of a three-layer pyramid, where the first layer includes game elements: XP (experience points), leaderboards, badges, progress bars, etc., the second layer includes game mechanics and the top of the pyramid is an exciting story. Not all games have all these elements; you can choose which ones you want to introduce to your game. Today we’ll talk about the lowest level, game elements.

PBL (Points, badges, levels)

When people hear the word gamification the first thing that comes to mind are points that you earn, badges and levels.

What is an experience point (XP)? It is a unit of measurement that shows a player’s progression through the game. Points are received for the completion of various quests and overcoming challenges. A lot of gamified services specialize in adding points and leveling up. Unfortunately, this leads to people thinking that gamification is very shallow. It is a mistake to think that adding points and levels will automatically make a boring experience fun and more effective. This is not true. People don’t play games to earn points. Points are essential elements but the opportunities to overcome obstacles and to face challenges motivate players much more. So, it’s more important to decide how, when and why you introduce points, badges and levels.

Before you choose what type of points and badges you want to use in your gamification framework, think of your students and what behavior change you want from them.

Before you start to implement gamification choose one metric you want to improve. E.g. I want my students to do their homework and be in class on time. If you have a number of things you want to improve, prioritize them and start with the top one.

Before you start gamification think about your students’ profiles. What are your students’ needs and pain points? Which elements suit your gamification framework? If your students require rewards, add XPs. If your students care about their status, add levels. If they like socializing and are altruistic, add gifting and charity.

POINTS AND ENGLISH CLASS

At first sight, points look very similar to school grades. So, why would they work any better? Points are almost always positive. If your mark is “2,” you can’t be proud of it. But if you get only 1 or 2 points for your work you can see your progress. And next time you’ll do your best to earn some more points.

In games we receive immediate feedback. As soon as you get a reward, your brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is an organic chemical responsible for predicting pleasure. When your student does a grammar exercise correctly and gets 3 points for it, dopamine is released and serves as a trigger for another action. Your student is eager to start another exercise as soon as possible to get more points. Thus, an engagement loop is formed. If you delay giving a reward and say “I’ll check your exercises and tell you your results next class,” the dopamine level in the blood drops and your student loses motivation.

Another thing to think over is whether your points are absolute or you differentiate (e.g., for grammar tasks you give blue points, for vocabulary tasks — red points, etc.)? In one of our games “Island”, where our students had to survive on a deserted island, they earned different points: food — for homework, water — for vocabulary tasks, wood — for grammar, etc. This diversion encouraged our students to pay more attention to tasks where they had problems. They saw that they didn’t have enough food to stay alive or didn’t have enough wood to make a fire at night. So, they worked harder and did more tasks in the area where they needed extra practice.

LEADERBOARD

All students can be ranked basing on the number of points they have. The visualization of this ranking system is called leaderboard. The first game we made at my school was “Space Journey”. As our groups consisted mostly of achievers, students who were keen on earning points, we decided to start with points and levels. For each correct answer, students earned a small piece of cardboard with a picture of a spaceship on it. At the end of each lesson we calculated the number of points each student had and built a leaderboard. There were some students at the top of the leaderboard, and some students were at the bottom. Those at the bottom knew that they would never beat the leaders. That’s why the leaderboard was divided into several segments and they were named after military ranks: privates, captains, and generals. If a student was in the segment “privates” he knew he would never become a general, but at the same time he understood that he could easily beat at least those two steps above him and become a captain. And this added loads of motivation.

STORY

Everybody likes good narratives. Before you introduce points and levels and badges, frame your lessons into an interesting story. For example, you can be looking for an exit out of a haunted house, fight with zombies or fly to faraway planets. Always try to think about something epic. People believe that they have hidden heroes inside. Your game metaphor must help to reveal their hidden hero. Walking through a magic forest is very weak. But walking through a magic forest to find an artifact, which will save the world from the evil magic, is much stronger.

RESULTS

The first months of gamification experiment changed our classes dramatically. All my students started working hard and even asked for extra assignments. Many of the weaker students gained confidence and improved their performance. Their parents were happy as well since students were highly motivated to do their English homework. So, we decided to continue and introduce the next layers of gamification framework.

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