Friday, 31 October 2014


My brain wouldn't let me sleep last night because I was thinking about gamification - probably Steve's (@GeoMouldey) fault for tweeting about badges the other day and also that I have been playing the magnificent new Civilization: Beyond Earth. Anyway, I had some insights I thought I'd share.

A little background before we begin - gamification is not learning through playing games or simulations. Gamification is using game design elements and mechanics in non-game contexts. It's primary purpose is to increase motivation. It's really big in the marketing and social media world but has also been applied to all sorts of other areas, including education. (Reference: The Gamification MOOC on Coursera I did a couple of years ago). 

One commonly used example of gamification in education is badges. They seem really cool - you do stuff, you get an awesome digital badge to show off. Several LMSs like Moodle and Edmodo give you the ability to create and award badges to students - they have got to be a good thing right?


Badges are a reward, plain and simple. They may not taste as good as chocolate. They may not get you free upgrades to first class. But they are still rewards, and they have a lot of motivational power. They are also an extrinsic reward, and we have to be very careful about how we use extrinsic rewards because the learning can get lost in the rewards.

I found this out last year when I tried a currency reward system with my junior classes. It was a simple system. I used ClassDojo to award points to students for all sorts of things - asking good questions, working well in a group, participating in discussions, and so on. At the end of the week students would be awarded a 'Huggard Nugget' for every five points they had earned. The Huggard Nuggets could be traded in at the end of the week for a selection of sweets. One nugget would get you a super-budget lollipop, five would get you a mini chocolate bar, while if you saved or teamed up with someone to get twenty you could get a king size block of chocolate.
Four varieties of Huggard Nugget
Things went great. Students were working harder, participating more, and were just being awesome all round. Points were racking up like crazy. Huggard Nuggets were a prized item. Students became upset if they lost a nugget before they could spend it. After a couple of weeks I started to feel that the 'game' had taken over. Students focused on getting points, while I ended up spending too much class time awarding points and maintaining the system. Learning was no longer the main focus of my classroom.

We want our students to be intrinsically motivated to learn. We want them to find learning itself rewarding. Extrinsic rewards/motivation are at odds with this, which is why we must be careful about how we use them.

Civilization: Beyond Earth, like many video games these days, has a bunch of achievements (or badges) that you can earn by doing certain things while playing the game. I realised that everyone that plays the game is intrinsically motivated to do so - no one is forced to play it - so the achievements do not exist to motivate people to play the game. I thought about the types of achievements and what they were trying to achieve.

Some of the Civilization: Beyond Earth achievements
There are achievements for winning games on all the different map sizes and types, winning on each difficulty level, winning as each leader, winning with the different victory conditions, specialising your civilization in different ways and so on. The achievements motivate you to play the game in different ways - if you keep playing the same way you won't be rewarded. You are only rewarded if you step out of your comfort zone and try something new!

That insight highlighted the major flaw in my reward system last year. I was rewarding students for doing the same thing over and over again. There was no motivation for them to challenge themselves, to try new things, to step outside their comfort zones. I was inadvertently motivating students to have a fixed mindset!

In order to encourage a growth mindset and not risk damaging students' intrinsic motivation to learn, the badges we award need to be carefully thought about. There shouldn't be badges for being punctual or other ordinary day-to-day things. There shouldn't be badges for repeatedly doing something. The badges should be for doing different and new things. This doesn't mean they need to be difficult! Think about having a set of badges for reviewing a topic - you could have a badge for using a mindmap to summarise a topic, and another for summarising a topic in video, and another for summarising a topic using only pictures. Students would be reasonably comfortable with at least one way of reviewing a topic, but these badges would motivate students to try different ways, getting them to try things they aren't comfortable with, to think about things in a different way - they also might just find their new favourite way of reviewing a topic.

I also think there should be a few hard to get (legendary) badges that really require students to challenge themselves to the extreme! Mostly because the badge would have flames and be really cool looking like this:
Who wouldn't want this badge?
So the take home lesson - badges and rewards should be used to encourage a growth mindset by motivating our students to challenge themselves, to try new things, to venture outside their comfort zones - because that's where the magic (and learning) happens!

Thursday, 16 October 2014


So I was just at Hobsonville Point Secondary School for a teacher applicant tour/meet and greet. Damn is that place invigorating. After Maurie and Claire talked to us I just had this urge to blog -mostly because they made me think of the changes I had helped make in the GBHS Science Department, and last time I wrote a post - way back in August - I promised I'd write a summary and reflection on the Year 9 Energy unit I did this year.

The big ideas for this unit are:

  • There are different forms of energy that can be changed from one form to another;
  • Energy is conserved;
  • Heat is transferred by conduction, convection and radiation.

We started off with a circle to co-construct the big question for the unit. Remember the big question frames the learning for the unit and is the topic of a project/thesis students work on throughout the unit. We discussed the word energy and where we've come across it, and aside from energy drinks and being energetic, things like the energy crisis, energy efficiency and renewable energy were brought up. A word that stood out was 'green'. Green homes, green buildings, green power, this led to the big question:

What would the ultimate green community look like?

Awesome question! We were going to design the ultimate 'green' community. We then unpacked this question and came up with five guiding questions:

  • What is meant by a 'green' community?
  • Why is it important that communities become more 'green'?
  • How should electricity be generated?
  • How can we reduce the amount of energy we use?
  • What is the best way to heat or cool a home?

Let's start learning!

The early part of the unit covering the first of the big ideas went well. We explored what makes things happen to find out what energy is and about  the different types of energy, we explored the energy transformations happening in toys and had fun designing Rube Goldberg machines. We found that electrical energy is super useful because it can be easily changed into most other forms of energy - why most of the energy we use is electrical.

How should electricity be generated?
I found a great activity looking at the energy transformations in generating electricity from fossil fuels and the environmental consequences of using fossil fuels (here - pages 12-24). I thought it was awesome how you filled in flowcharts with information from an article, then used the flowcharts to help write explanations of what causes global warming etc. This led nicely into groups researching renewable energy sources to find the best solution for our 'green' community. We had an informal debate between the groups to reach a consensus on how to power the community. 

How can we reduce the amount of energy we use?
Conservation of energy was next, we used a PhET simulation to explore the concept and then elaborated by investigating energy efficient light bulbs, and energy star ratings on appliances.

What is the best way to heat or cool a home?
Heat transfer was covered by exploring and then discussing a range of experiments. We used predict-explain-observe-explain while looking at some of the infrared videos here. Time was then given for students to research energy efficient heating and cooling solutions and to begin to design the home they would contribute to the community.

We spent some time in the computer lab using Energy3D to model our homes. This application simulates passive solar heating and heat loss through windows etc. giving you an estimate of annual heating and cooling costs.

The plan was to then print and build the model homes, however this did not end up happening. This was because many didn't end up finishing their models and we could not get into the computer lab again, printing out the models proved problematic and time had run out. This was a huge disappointment as we were not going to get to build our community. Students still submitted reports on the big question however.

Student Reflection
Several students said that the electricity generation debate and the Rube Goldberg machine designs were the highlights of the unit. Many found the Energy3D application limited and frustrating to use. Many students found the types of heat transfer the most difficult big idea. 

My Reflection
I thought the big question was fantastic! It pulled together all of the big ideas and applied them to a topical issue. The electricity generation flowchart activity resulted in some magnificent pieces of writing. The renewable energy debate went extremely well and I was impressed by how the students managed themselves and argued in a very positive and respectful manner. It was also great how they came to a consensus on using a combination of solar and hydroelectric power. We all found the house design process difficult. Next time I would provide a planning framework and  more time to spend on design. I would not use Energy3D, it was more trouble than it was worth and limited student house designs because it doesn't support curved walls and balconies among other things. I would pursue the physical models again but this time get them to build from scratch instead of trying to use Energy3D. I would love to see an entire little cardboard community with each student having built a house!

As always, questions are welcome either on here or Twitter.