The ‘Gamification’ of the Education System? Too late.

Gamification is a trend that took the marketing industry by storm.

They suddenly realized at one point that gamers are addicted to their games, even worse than drug addicts are addicted to heroin. So  they dug deeper to find out why this addiction happened. What they found was phenomenal. They found that video games are designed to hack into our brain circuitry and give it bursts of happiness (just like a drug) when the games are played. People literally get addicted to games!

And so, they studied game mechanics and tried to apply them so that consumers would get addicted to their products. It turned out to be so successful that now people are applying it to everything, from things like Foursquare (location sharing) to dropping bad habits (an app where a plant grows larger for each day you stop smoking).

So I thought: Why not apply it to education?

… Oops, too late.

Somehow, whether through purpose or coincidence, the education system is already using game mechanics:

  1. Points system to track progress. It’s called grades.
  2. Mini-boss at the end of the level. Final year exams.
  3. Super boss at the end of the game. High school graduation exam (SPM/O-levels/SATs)
  4. The opponents get harder as you level up. Every year, your subjects get gradually harder as you progress through the system.
  5. Leaderboards. Compare yourself against other people playing the game. Compare your grades (points). See who’s doing better. Think “Temple Run”.

That’s why we have people addicted to doing well academically. That’s why people go crazy over how many A’s they get. It’s a game. Education is a game.

Education is a game.

And it’s easy to go crazy over a game.

However, it’s very important to remember that games only aim for higher scores.

Games only make you want higher scores

It’s all nice and dandy to think that the gamification of education is good, but you first have to know what gamification does and when it’s appropriate to use it.

The point of using game mechanics is to get results. When there’s something that people don’t like doing, then you can use game mechanics to give another side to it, so that part of it can be fun. When people don’t have a natural motivation or interest to do something, you trick their brains by giving it a secondary motivation; in this case through getting more points. This is how you get results when no one has any motivation.

Let’s say that a random company online wants to find out where you live. Seriously? You’re just gonna tell them? No way.

But make it into a game and now you’re “checking in” with foursquare every minute, trying to become mayor of your neighbourhood. This gives the results that the company wants, but sharing your location is not the same as being able to appreciate the beauty of your neighbourhood, or even to notice what’s going wrong with it. You’re still not interested in your neighbourhood.

So gamification gives results, and gives motivation and interest in completing those results, but it doesn’t spark any interest in the actual thing itselfGamification gives only results.

We’ve managed to create a ton of students who are interested in getting A’s while having zero interest in learning.

And in education, this is what has happened. We’ve had gamification create a ton of students who are extremely motivated in giving results and scoring extremely high grades. But we’ve had little success in creating students who are actually interested in learning.

The difference between “education” and “learning”

A good education is pretty useful. It exposes you to new ideas and shows you that the world is a much wider place than you thought. It shows you that when you want to make a decision, or even just have a thought, there are other perspectives you need to take into account, whether they are scientific, aesthetic or historical.

But it’s not the same as having a learning mindset.

A learning mindset is not just knowing about other ideas and perspectives, but rather wanting to find out more about them. Curiosity. Interest. That hunger for knowledge.

But because the interest in getting A’s and good grades is so high, we’ve been tricked into believing that there’s also a high interest in learning more. That’s not necessarily true.

And by assuming that the interest is already there, we haven’t bothered to put any focus on building interest towards the subject itself.

We don’t bother building interest in learning because there’s already interest in getting good grades.

If it sounds ridiculous that this is happening, I agree, it IS ridiculous. How could we ever confuse the two types of interest?

If it sounds familiar, like you’ve already noticed this stuff happening and you’ve been wondering why, then here’s your answer. Now it’s time to do something about it.

Gamification isn’t enough

We have to start acknowledging that gamification isn’t enough. All it does is drive results. That would be perfect if the final goal of the education system was to have results, but we’re not a grades factory. We don’t want to create grades that go higher and higher. We’re a students factory.

To create those students, and to instill a learning mindset, gamification isn’t enough. I’m not saying we should remove it. But I’m saying that we need to spend enough time in building interest in the subject itself, and not just in the results. I’m not sure yet which way to go about doing this, but you can bet I’ll be pondering it seriously.

So yeah… gamification is already happening in education. And guess what?

It isn’t enough.

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