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Post date: Tuesday, 22 August 2017

What motivates game-using teachers? Episode 6

By Rachel Bolstad

This blog miniseries has profiled the motivations of various game-using teachers we have interviewed in the Games for Learning project.

We kicked off episodes 1 and 2 with teachers who self-identified as gamers of one kind or another. In episode 3 we met teachers whose game-based practices emerged from an interest in how children learn through play. Episode 4 profiled two teachers who were enthusiastically exploring what game-based learning has to offer. Episode 5 discussed teachers who had a particular interested in digital games and game design as a vehicle for the development of students’ digital and STEM capabilities.

This post introduces another teacher motivation story, addressing an angle on games for learning that we haven’t discussed much until now.

The time has come to talk about gamification. 

What is gamification?

Karl Kapp helpfully defines gamification as “using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems” (Kapp, 2012, p. 10).  This broad definition is all you need to know for the purposes of this blog post, but if you're completely new to the idea of gamification and want to know a little more, I recommend this short readable introduction  by Kapp, or getting hold of this book .  As Kapp points out, definitions of gamification are still evolving and diversifying as different people seek to bring gamification into different contexts, for different purposes.  This malleability  is an important idea  about gamification to hold in your mind as I introduce you to Hamish and Brad. 

Hamish and Brad: The gamifiers

Hamish  and Brad are colleagues at a Year 7-13 Integrated Catholic School for boys. Hamish is the head of middle school, and Brad is the head of curriculum innovation and leadership. They are currently collaborating with colleagues to explore how they could gamify the curriculum for all students in Years 7-9 at their school.

Gamify the curriculum? What does that mean? How would it work? What would it look like? Good questions. That’s what Hamish, Brad, and their colleagues want to try to figure out over the next couple of years.

Why try to gamify the curriculum? Also a good question. It’s not because Hamish and Brad love games: They don’t.

I hate games, I hate playing computer games (Hamish)

Really, all kinds of games?             

Yeah, I'm a sportsman, I want to win. No board games, I don't like games. Me and my 4 year old son had a big argument over snakes and ladders once. (Hamish)

Yeah my focus on winning is terrible as opposed to the process... I've always been a get out and do something person. I think I've come from, you know, “kids shouldn't be playing games they should be outside running around”. (Brad)

Why would two non-gaming teachers be interested in gamifying the school curriculum?

The key to understanding their motivation to gamify is to understand the nature of the “problem” for which they think gamification might be a solution. They’re thinking about how to improve their students’ motivation, engagement, and ability to progress through learning at a pace and in directions that work best for each learner. The aim of better serving the diverse learning needs of learners in the middle-school years (Years 7-9) has been an ongoing focus over several years.

For a long time the junior school was sort of forgotten I think, it was NCEA driven, the younger ones, it was just a holding cell I guess you could call it, and there wasn't much thought about how we could develop these learners… I always used to get a bit frustrated... with NCEA, and the fact that it's tended to be more and more driven by results and teaching to a test, and then thinking about not seeing so much progress from Year 7 to Year 13 in terms of their dispositions to being learners. So a couple of years ago I thought “no I've had enough”, I started being a wee bit innovative in what I was doing in the middle school (Hamish)

The school started to move towards widespread integration of digital technology. As Hamish and other teachers started to bring more digital technology into teaching and learning, they began to consider what pedagogical goals should drive the use of technology.

We started thinking about pedagogy behind why have [technology] in there? When we became fully BYOD, we started tinkering with you know, things being siloed and especially boys’ engagement levels in the school...thinking about things like project-based learning, collaboration with other departments (Hamish)

Three years ago Hamish made a pitch for establishing a new role, head of middle school, and has since been working in this role, driving curriculum innovations and alongside Brad, supporting staff professional learning around curriculum innovation and research-based ideas about the future of learning.

A values-based curriculum

As a Catholic School, values are especially important to the school and its community, and staff have worked together to develop a shared values base to underpin curriculum thinking.

Two to three years ago we created a values based curriculum [for years] 7-8-9 with the values being intrinsically incorporated, [with] relationships and things being at the core of that. If we're just standing at the front of the class teaching, we're not really building relationships, we're not developing our values. We can't just say we are about social justice, we've actually got to do it, we've got to create courses which actually do involve boys working with the community, even at a young age. (Hamish)

Seeking to live out these values in practice has led to a variety of curriculum experiments. Over a few years, new kinds of integrated courses have been developed, such as STEM classes, Integrated Projects (IGP) in Year 9, Integrated Studies in Years 7-8. Brad suggested there had been a shift in the way teachers were thinking about knowledge in teaching and learning.

[Teachers are starting to] move from “this is my subject, this is how we assess it, this is what I want you to achieve by the end of it”, from [a] content base, now to a lot of the departments doing project based learning, doing hands on approaches to learning, so students are demonstrating their knowledge through end tasks, through projects, through presentations, and also developing their soft skills.  It's building that into knowledge as well, knowledge of how to work with someone else, knowledge of how to give up an idea and be better for the part of the team, and buy into that. That's tough for boys, it's tough for teachers too when you're having those conversations (Brad)

The key competencies have become a core focus. Students are now doing e-portfolios, with assessment built around the key competencies.

A big thing for me is the idea of progression versus achievement, so looking at progression, getting rid of junior exams for Year 7s and 8s, and looking at this idea of how can we create lifelong learners (Hamish)

All of the curriculum re-thinking and innovation that has already happened in the school gives Hamish and Brad the confidence to explore what gamification might have to offer.

I think for us if we, even if we get lost in this idea of gamification we just go back, what  are our values, how does this reinforce what we do, it's not just a fad (Hamish)

It's not something we could have introduced 3-4 years ago, and say we're going to do gamification” there was a lot of groundwork (Brad)

Gamification: A solution for responding to students’ diverse learning needs in the middle school?

Hamish and Brad explained that students come into the Middle school with varying different levels of readiness to move and progress through their learning. The school has over 40 feeder schools, with some students entering the school at Year 7, some at Year 8, and an additional chunk at Year 9.

We've got all these range of students coming in [so to] say “you're all going into Year 9 now”, even though we know some of these students will not cope, we identify them, no matter what we do, we always end up coming back to the same problems, they're coming in and maybe they should have an extra year to do it, or maybe they should be in different year groups. It's just like the structure of how [the school curriculum] is set up just doesn't allow it.

This is where the idea of gamification comes in. Hamish and Brad have been thinking about how in a game, players start at the basic level, and can then level up, or replay/repeat until they master the challenges of the beginning level.

[what if] you can start it at the beginners level like a game, you start at the beginners level no matter what, and you move as quick as you need, I thought that's such a better idea (Hamish)

[As a learner] you start at the beginner level, you find your feet and where you are at, and it's really important for [students] to be able to take ownership for where, they know where they sit, and  then move at a pace [that works for them]. (Brad)

Building intrinsic motivation

Noting that leaderboards and competition have already been effective with many of their boys, they are considering how to use a gamified approach in ways that will encourages students to feel intrinsically motivated, rather than just chasing extrinsic rewards

Traditionally it's always been extrinsic factors that have prompted our boys to want to do well. We want to create the internal capacity, the internal drive to take responsibility for their own learning. Let's give them the opportunity to find their passions and create that intrinsic motivation, for them to want to learn... for me that's a big part of this job, you know creating    opportunities for individuals to find their best way to learn it, and find their passions (Brad)

As for the exact details for how this will look, and how it will work, they haven’t figured it all out yet, though they have already tried things on a small scale.

We've trialled a lot of what we think it would look like with the kids, on a small scale and had success so that's given the confidence, to drive to the next step, it's not like something I've sort of seen [this already happening in another school and can say] well this works, so this is our students because that's the most important thing, what works for our boys. (Hamish)

“We’re not afraid to fail”

Hamish and Brad are not concerned about getting everything right from the outset. Like everything else they have done so far, they intend to develop and trial ideas, learn from what works, consult students and the community, and keep progressing towards improvement of their idea.

If we don't do it right the first time, awesome (Brad)

I don't see us doing it right the first time (Hamish)

From July 2017, Hamish and Brad will be leading a two-year Teacher-Led Innovation Fund (TLIF) project to enable them to work across their staff, and with students and the community, to explore how to bring principles of gamification into their practice to better meet students’ learning needs, continuing to build the school’s curriculum around its overarching values and lifelong learning goals. No doubt they will learn a huge amount in their journey, and hope to share this learning with other teachers and schools who are interested in what they’re trialling.

They’ll be sharing more about their project and journey to gamify the curriculum at the upcoming Games for Learning conference.

Will you be there too?


Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Case-based methods and strategies for training and education. New York, NY: Pfeiffer.

Games for learning

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