Friday, July 26, 2013

School as a Game: What Does That Look Like?

When I was in in middle school, my best friend and I would play Mario Party almost every day during the summer.  We each picked characters and collected stars as we progressed through each level.  Towards the end of the summer we had this crazy idea to start off the school year by treating it like a game.  We decided to classify grades as different levels of stars and have a contest to see who could collect the most stars.  A's were worth 3 stars, B's were worth 2 stars, and C's were worth 1 star. It was not that we were bad students to begin with, we just wanted a way to make it more "fun".  Initially we were so excited to treat school like this.  Then the school year actually started and I don't think we ever came back to the idea.  Looking back, it was probably because the school environment did not lend itself to this kind of assessment.  None of our teachers were treating the class as a game, so how could we?

Rory touched on the idea of turning his English classroom into a game.  When I think about what this would look like, I think about differentiation.  Within a game you have different levels that you must master before you move on to the next.  If one student is having a hard time beating that "level" it will take more scaffolding by the teacher or more time spent on that level by the student.  I think the idea of treating it like a game is that instruction fits everyone's skill level.  This sounds much easier than it is in practice, and I am not sure who to balance this idea with the idea of standards.  Eventually, your goal is to have everyone on the same level.  This same level is usually high and is not decided upon by the teacher.

This also makes me think back to learning my multiplication tables in 3rd grade.  We all had paper ice cream cones that hung on the wall.  Each "level" of multiplication we completed earned us a scoop of ice cream on top of the cone.  Students who did not complete level 3 could not move on until they had mastered this skill.  This makes me wonder about what my teacher did for students who still only had 4 ice cream scoops while the rest of us had 10 or 12.  Either way, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment when I completed a level and got to put another scoop of ice cream on the board.  It was a game of skill and I still remember my times tables to this day.

Ultimately, I think it is important to balance "fun" with required learning objectives.  Maybe one way to strike this balance would be to brainstorm with students about what activities they would find engaging.  That way, you can plan a lesson around a particular activity, but find a way to tailor it to a specific objective or goal.  I think it is hard to imagine school like a game because it is something that hasn't really been observed in a traditional classroom.  Perhaps this will change in the future as we incorporate more "game-like" features into our classrooms.


  1. Rachael, there's a lot in this interesting post of yours, but I want to flag one sentence. You write about "This makes me wonder about what my teacher did for students who still only had 4 ice cream scoops while the rest of us had 10 or 12." This sentence makes me think both of the motivational power of competition (and play) but also the potential downside, as people see themselves falling behind, possibly get demoralized, etc. Any thoughts about how you might approach things so as to maximize the benefit and minimize the downside for individual students?

  2. Competition definitely has the downside of demoralizing students, but then again, grades are already comparing students against one another so there is no way to remove that aspect of falling behind anyways. Not to sound pessimistic of course. By "no way" I might mean "no easy way."

    I'm drawn to your idea of having students brainstorm what would be fun. To what extent should we ask for student input on our lesson plans? I don't know if anyone has ever tried it, but perhaps it could work for some days. Have you ever helped a teacher plan a lesson?

    Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  3. To answer Jeff's question, maybe there's a way to reset the "game" each week so the student's can get a "reset" and start at the same pace again. Perhaps that could motivate the student to try harder to keep the pace with the rest of the students. At the end of the summer program, I asked my focus student what would happen if school just a bunch of games. He told me that he would get all A's without any hesitation. I feel that there is a real opportunity here to engage students more effectively through the use of games, but trying to figure out the details on how to achieve that is going to be a difficult task. However, I really do like your idea on trying to get students to come up with ideas on how to achieve this. Thanks for the post!

  4. Rachel, you bring up a lot of great points in your post, as well as great memories of playing Mario Party. I agree with your statement that it is important to balance fun and learning in the classroom. I also like your idea of letting students brainstorm what activities they find engaging is great too. I think anytime you can empower your students and make them feel in control of their own learning, positive results will soon follow.