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How gamification is changing classrooms and engaging students

What is the role of games in education and how can it benefit learning in the classroom?

20 Nov 2019
Decades ago, play was something that happened in the school playground during break time. The classroom was emphatically not a place where pupils expected to play games or have fun. Teaching techniques were firmly teacher-centred, focusing on direct instruction. Teachers were the all-knowing source of information and gave lectures or presented information to a class of passive students. Drilling, where students repeat what the teacher says verbatim, and rote learning (memorisation) were key teaching techniques. 

This teacher-centred approach began to change in the late 1960s and 1970s, as a response to the Plowden report, a review of primary education in England published in 1967. The second chapter of the report about child development opens with the bold statement: 

“At the heart of the educational process lies the child.”

It embodied the new approach recommended by the report. As a result, educators shifted to a more child-centred strategy. This aimed to keep children engaged and motivated when it came to learning. Education was no longer supposed to be something that happened to students; this new approach was designed to encourage children to be active participants in their own education. Peer-to-peer learning, exploration and curiosity are all hallmarks of this approach, which paved the way for play in the classroom. 

The role of games in education

There has been some pushback against this concept of enjoyable, child-centred learning. Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted in England, decried that vision as “full of lefty, hippy-type inspectors, mired in 60s, child-centred ideology.” He went on to say, “I am part of a generation of people who experienced – I started teaching in the 60s – that sort of ideology which ruined the lives of generations of children at that time.” 

Strong words, but he’s not the only one to feel this way. A report published only last year argued that traditional teaching methods, while not fun for students, are the most effective. It presented evidence showing that homework, a competitive school environment and teacher-centred learning increase pupils’ test scores. This is in spite of the fact that they make students less happy and make the learning process less joyful. 

However, there is a lot of credible evidence which points in the other direction. Play is something that happens naturally in every culture and community throughout the world. And there is a powerful case for its role in education. It is widely accepted that play is the way that pre-school children learn about the world. 

The school system in Finland, for example, which comes top in European education rankings, puts a huge emphasis on the importance of creative play. 

David Whitebread is the director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning at the University of Cambridge. Speaking in the Guardian about the Finnish system, he says, “From a psychological point of view you can see how play can help children become powerful learners.” 

Moreover, this study by Unicef found that using games in the classroom improved student learning by 23%. But games are not only useful tools for transferring knowledge to students; they can be used as motivating tools too. Learning through play makes children into lifelong learners and supports their overall development. 

Gamified learning in the classroom 

The explosion in the numbers of students owning smart devices has created a whole new arena for educational technology (edtech). Schools and publishers have created their own educational games and virtual realities in a bid to engage students and make their learning journey as fun and memorable as possible. But you can gamify your classroom, even without access to technology! 

Reverse grading 
  • A good start is grading backwards - this means that all students start from 0 and earn points for completing assignments, or doing homework. They earn more points for doing well, and progress towards mastery. Creating and displaying a class leaderboard acts as a visual reminder to students to motivate and encourage them. 
Levelling up
  • In games, you need to complete a level before you get to the next one. Curiosity and the desire to tick off the levels makes levelling up very motivating. In your classroom, getting to the next level shows that a student has mastered that particular stage of learning. This can be built into your leaderboard. 
Bonus points 
  • Much like in a video game, you can give students bonus points for helping their classmates, or perseverance with a difficult task. That way, the points system works to encourage good behaviour and a classroom culture of kindness and respect. 
Allow students second chances
  • All games involve practice. If your students fail something, let them have another go. This gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, try again and succeed. It will encourage independent learning and teach students to see failure as a step to success, instead of feeling sad or demotivated. 

Making these small changes can really improve engagement and motivation among students. It’s a far cry from the days of fifty students sitting in front of a blackboard chanting verb tables! 

What’s your opinion on the gamification of learning? Do you encourage play as an important part of your teaching? Or do you think games are better left outside the classroom? Get involved in the conversation and let us know in the comments! 

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