“Gamification” and Education

Dear Reader,

I recently read an article in Harvard Magazine (Mar-Apr, 2015) called “Computing in the Classroom.” The author, Sophia Nguyen, reports on the work of some big thinkers in the field of education and how in particular they see games (and as the title suggests this seems to be mainly computer games) playing into education. A lot of the ideas and words in the article were new to me and I will not pretend I understood it all. But I would like to give you my summary and thoughts.

Nguyen begins by looking at the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who is so famous even I have heard of him. He is known as a behaviorist who experimented not only on pigeons and the like but also on his own children (or so I have read elsewhere). He tried to control people and animals through what he did to them. An example which the article uses is   getting a pigeon to roll a ball back and forth with its beak in order to earn food pellets. Perfectly innocent, in my opinion, when a pigeon is involved. Not so innocent when the goal is the education of our children. Here is where the term “gamification” first gets introduced — it seems to refer to when businesses or schools use things that seem like games to try to get their employees or students to do what they want them to:

“For businesses, gamification-based training promises to maximize profits and employee productivity; for schools, it seems like a way to motivate students to perform rote memorization—and to do so cost-effectively. The education system continues to pursue Skinner’s goal of efficiency and automation.” (p. 49)

The article then goes on to say, quoting Paul Reville, a professor of educational policy, that this system is outmoded (thank God!) and that we need something which will better prepare our kids for technological careers. Up to this point, I am with Nguyen and her sources. What she says sounds a lot like what I have read in John Taylor Gatto’s books (see a couple of reviews here and here) — that is, our modern educational system was designed to make automatons to work in factories and we need to replace it.

The question is: what do we replace it with? Nguyen begins this section by citing another professor, Jessica Hammer, who says that “deep game experiences: need to involve “meaningful choices” and “the open-ended, experimental spirit of play” (p. 49). She then looks at the sorts of games which have been successful at getting kids involved and getting them to learn and those which haven’t. Nguyen mentions Pokemon cards as being a great example of something that got kids to learn and read. As a Charlotte Mason-style educator, though, I cringed when these trading cards were called “‘the best literacy curriculum ever conceived'” (p. 51). There seems to be in this statement only a desire for quantity — can our kids read? how many can read?– and no concern for the quality of what is being introduced.

Which brings me to the real heart of what I want to say: We need to know what we are trying to do with kids. Nguyen’s article assumes a certain goal for education which seems to be to produce kids who can “pursue work and personal interests in the twenty-first century” (p. 51) and to equip them for “high-skill, high-knowledge jobs in a postindustrial information age” (p. 49). The underlying assumption seems to be that Skinner’s approach fails because the world has changed and that therefore education needs to change to keep up. Nguyen speaks of Skinner’s machine operating “through the narrowest if windows” whereas today “the windows are so much larger” (p. 54).

While I agree with the criticisms of Skinner’s work, I am not sure the solutions here explored are any better. There is still a fundamental assumption that we, the educators, must manipulate the students and mold them into what we want them to be. And then there are all the assumptions about what they should be — productive workers within a given system. The system may have changed over the years, but the goals really have not. We are still treating children like pigeons. All that has changed is that our pigeons (guinea pigs might be a better term) have a lot more complex tasks to perform. It all comes back for me to Charlotte Mason’s first principle: children are born persons. When we forget that, we go astray and can’t find our way back. We are asking how do we educate kids to make them what they should be when we should be asking who they will be.

It seems to me there is also a hint here of something like a Montessori or Waldorf type education in which an artificial environment is created for children. The idea behind all this “gamification” being that we create scenarios which will mimic the “real world” in order to prepare our kids for that “real world.” In the quote from Hammer above, she speaks of the “spirit of play” but as others have argued (see this review of Peter Gray’s work for instance), it is real play children need, not something adults try to construct to mimic play. We will never be as good at producing for them what they naturally create for themselves.

It all comes back to prsonhood again. We need to care who our children are, not what role they will fulfill in our scheme of things or how productice they will be. And we need to respect them as persons by not trying to manipulate them through games and artificially constructed frameworks which are playful but are not true play.



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