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!


  1. Very thought provoking. Are we rewarding for the right things? Making me think - Thankyou

  2. Yes! That totally makes sense. Been using ClassDojo on my current and last placement. I noticed how the students would sit up when the ClasDojo screen came up, then slump back down when I moved on with the lesson. Perfect timing to come across your blog Aaron!