Gamification 101: What is it?

One of the biggest buzzwords in education today is “gamification.” What is it? Gamification is the process of making your class more like a game by incorporating elements from gaming into the way you organize and evaluate activities.

One key difference between a gamified classroom and a traditional one is in how growth is measured. In traditional classrooms students are often measured in absolute terms. Their skills are rewarded based on what they know, not on how much the learn along the way. In a gamified classroom students earn points, badges, level-ups and achievements as they progress through the game, regardless of where they start on day one. Their growth is measured in relative terms, the object is for them to make progress and improve as the course progresses.

Another key difference between gamified and traditional classrooms is the method of content delivery. A key component of many gamified classrooms is flipping. In flipped classrooms students usually receive information at home and process it in class, rather than the more traditional model of receiving content at school and processing it at home.

Gamification is not without its detractors, many of whom are critical of relying on extrinsic motivation to engage students in learning. I respect this criticism, and don’t think that every classroom should try to become more gamified, but there is a place for it in education. There is no one method that will work for all students, and for some of our most reluctant learners this may be an approach that gives them a reason to engage with the content.

If you want to read more about gamifying, I suggest you read Vicki Davis’ (@coolcatteacher) awesome blog post here.

There are several sites that offer ways to gamify your classroom. Here are some that I’m interested in.



Classcraft create an entire new layer on any existing class. They offer most of their features for free, but do have a paid plan as well.



HabitRPG seems like it has a ton of potential to me. It creates a system of gamifying LIFE itself. This will be GREAT for working with younger students as it can create a simple framework for developing time management skills. I know that this does rely on a system of extrinsic motivation, as all gaming does, but it may be a great place to start with more reluctant kids who are easily motivated by these types of games.

Vicki Davis’s podcast, Every Classroom Matters, is great. In this episode she interviews Cat Flippen (@CatFlippen) to see how she is using gamification, and where she sees it going in the future.


Day 1 In the Books. Today Was a Good Day.

Technology Meets Courtesy and Common Sense

Two of the cornerstones of The Northwest School (NWS) philosophy are courtesy and common sense. These foundational ideas, while simple, capture two of the key lessons we can impart in students as we prepare them for life in the 21st century. Technology provides the ideal junction of social interaction and personal expression where we, as educators, can impart these values. Most of what schools do today is not based in framework of courteous or common sense use of technology. A majority of acceptable use policies focus on listing punishments and consequences rather than laying out expected uses and outlining potential benefits of technology. Instead of viewing the inherent opportunity that lies within technology, most schools today create Draconian zero-tolerance policies which punish students rather than educate them. Our role should be lift barriers for students, not create them.

Here at NWS, we have the rare privilege of working with a faculty that abhors these kinds of discipline policies, and truly wants to educate and inspire our students. The primary directive of any place of learning in the 21st century should be to find ways to remove limits on the uses and implementation of technology and model its use in responsible and intentional ways. At our school we have just implemented student wireless and Office 365. These tools will make it easier for students and teachers to communicate with each other. They will also make it easier for our users to distribute documents, store files, and collaborate. However, these tools will be of little value if their use isn’t modeled constantly by teachers, based in sound pedagogical practice, and if it isn’t tied directly to our core values of courtesy and common sense.

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason. –Thomas Paine, Common Sense

Currently, schools around the country have a flawed view of how technology should be introduced and used. They are often willing to buy new Chromebooks, iPads, or other hardware, but they are seldom willing to implement common sense policies for dealing with teens and young adults. One example of this is the level of filtering that schools place on student networks. Current norms dictate that it is right, or “safe,” to limit students’ access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

Let’s take a moment to consider some of the reasons why schools block these sites. First, they claim that there are liability issues. There is some merit to this line of reasoning. When students post irresponsibly on these, or other sites, there are often real-world consequences that manifest in our schools. I would argue that it defies logic and sound reasoning to completely block students from using these sites because: they are going to use them any way, they are going to do so at school (on their phones if not our networks), and most importantly we should teach them how to use these sites responsibly in school. We should instruct students how to manage their digital footprints, post responsibly, and use social media to enhance learning. We should not hide behind worst-case scenario liability issues that may never materialize if we take the preventative step of educating students how to use technology in the first place.

A second concern that schools have is that student use of technology will put unmanageable stresses on their networks. This concern should be a thing of the past in most major cities. Bandwidth prices have steadily declined and the ability to filter traffic on some sites (with some reasonable limits on non-educational bandwidth hogs like Torrent sites or streaming video) should remove this concern. There will still be times when students find sites that can’t be managed during school hours, but when this happens we should speak to students. We should find out what they are trying to do and see if it has educational value. If it does, we should strive to enable them to view the content and pursue their interests. When it does not we should take the time to speak with them about how the network operates and the times they should avoid intensive use of it. Blocking sites does not prevent students from accessing these them, it inspires students to find ways to hack around the technologies that limit their access.

Common sense dictates that there should be some limits on the role of technology in our lives. We should strive to maintain a balance between our digital and real-world lives. If students don’t learn this in school, a place where they spend a large chunk of their waking hours, where will they learn it? As educators we should model the behavior we’d like students to employ, and teach them how to change their habits when they fall short.

“Life is short, but there is always time enough for courtesy.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Courtesy is an equally important value for students to learn as they navigate the world of technology. While it is unrealistic to think that students will never err when they comment, post, tweet, and selfie away their time online, it is important that we model courteous and responsible online behavior. Students need to take control of their digital footprints and one of the easiest ways for them to do so is for them to see adults modeling the behavior. They should learn early and often that digital media does not have a shelf-life. It never expires and may come back to haunt them when they least expect it. That said, they shouldn’t be afraid of the internet. We all learn about the dangers of driving when we turn 16, yet we have implemented a rational and regimented process of learning to drive. Very few people would hesitate to sit behind the wheel of car, despite knowing the dangers that come with the privilege of driving. Instead of fearing cars, good drivers drive defensively. They actively watch for the hazards in the road, follow the rules, and trust that if they do so they’ll be relatively safe.

We treat the other drivers on the road with some modicum of courtesy (usually). We do so without knowing them or often without even looking too closely to see who they are. Students need to learn to take a similar approach to the internet. They should learn to recognize and appreciate the other “drivers” on the web as fellow human beings, and act with the same level of courtesy and kindness that they would expect. They should learn that there are negative consequences when they make mistakes and that they will be held responsible for their actions. However, at the end of the day, we should trust them enough to give them the keys and let them take the net for a spin on their own.

Happy Thought: I love it when people are willing to try new things!

Happy Thoughts are shorter blog entries that convey things the make me happy for one reason or another!

Nothing is more awesome as an educator than working with a faculty that is willing to try new things! Ever since I arrived at NWS my colleagues have been open-minded and excited to learn about all of the new features and challenges that we’ll face with our transition to Office 365. One big highlight from today was that two teams of teachers, the 6th and 9th grades, offered to pilot using Sharepoint sites to centralize their documents and calendars. It is early, but the results are promising so far!

Read This: The Pen is Mightier Than the Laptop

I love Educational Technology, but it has its limits. There are many places where technology can serve to enhance how students learn, but there are just as many where it can impair learning. A student in a dance class can benefit from watching a video recording of their performance, but they can just as easily hone their craft by watching themselves in a mirror. A humanities student can watch video interviews with primary sources, but usually will derive more benefit from looking the historical source in the eye and asking them questions. No matter where we look in our classrooms and educational practice, we will eventually find places where technology creates an impediment to learning.

I recently stumbled on “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” a paper by Pam Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Their findings show that when it comes to note taking technology may actually hinder a student’s ability to process and engage with new information.

“even when distractions are controlled for,
laptop use might impair performance by affecting the
manner and quality of in-class note taking.”

There sample size was small, only 65 students, but their methodology points to what may be an underlying truth: students will retain more information and perform better on tests when they take notes using pen and paper. They had the participants watch lectures and either take notes using laptops (not connected to the internet), or by hand. By removing internet from the equation they seem to have limited one of the most common sources of distraction when taking notes on a device, and thus they may have leveled the playing field to place where a meaningful comparison can take place. After completing their note taking, the students completed some thinking tasks before they were asked a series of questions that forced them to recall information from the lecture. Overall, students did better when they took longhand notes.

They found that when compared with computer notes, longhand notes:

  • contained fewer words
  • had less overlap with lecture (less verbatim transcription)
  • people who wrote more notes did better on the questions
  • people with less verbatim notes performed better on the questions

They found that “laptops may harm academic performance even when used as intended. Participants using laptops are more likely to take lengthier transcription-like notes with greater verbatim overlap with the lecture. Although taking more notes, thereby having more information, is beneficial, mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review. ” [emphasis is mine]

I highly recommend reading the paper (link above), and that you think twice before rushing students into taking notes using digital tools. Students need to learn note taking skills in general, because regardless of the tool they use, writing down the lecturer’s words is never a sound practice. Laptops and devices provide students with the ability to write at a far faster pace than pen and paper, but in so doing they create opportunities for students to use poor note taking practices. The authors close with a profound thought that I could not agree with more:

“synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes… laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

As educators, we should use a similar litmus test whenever we turn to technological tools. We must consider the alternative to the tool we plan to use, and the tradeoffs of making the switch. If we honestly assess the value of the new tool versus the old, and take into considerations a serious list of benefits and costs, we may find that pen is indeed mightier.

Change is Inevitable, We Can Avoid the Valley of Despair

Today I had the pleasure of hearing  Howard Teibel (@HowardTeibel) speak about embracing and reaction to change. Throughout his speech he used the idea of “technology” as a catchall to represent all of the “changes” that schools would face in the future. Many of those in attendance were concerned about the implications of increasing access to technology, and he used this image to present how organizations deal with any change, technological or otherwise:

The stages of dealing with change.
The stages of dealing with change.

Mr. Teibel’s chart captures the fact that when we fail to educate those around us, the natural trajectory of change leads to what he calls the “Valley of Despair.” When students and faculty feel inadequately prepared for new initiatives it is easy to feel confused, misled, and even angry. Changes need to be introduced gradually, with an end in mind, and with the concession that it is impossible to reach unanimity on any planned decision.

Mr. Teibel then referred to concept I was less familiar with, Claes Janssen‘s Four Rooms of Change:

CONTENTMENTAdjustment. My present situation feels good enough as it is. Relaxed, effortless self-control, as when riding a bicycle. Attention focused on the here & now, no marked self-reflection. »I am OK, you are OK«. Feeling »average« in the sense of not special. Being there.
RENEWALCreative change. Integration. A sense of »getting it all together«. Insights, aha-experiences. Feelings freely felt and expressed. Intense experience of the here & now, with self-reflection: I participate and observe that I am participating. Strong feelings of community. Self-confidence. Energy. Radical ideas, a desire to make things happen.
DENIALPseudo-adjustment. Self-discipline with focus on completing a certain task or defending a certain pattern or status quo. No clear feelings. I am in control but uptight. The here & now (if experienced at all) feels empty and mechanical. Irritation. Attention concentrated on the task felt to be necessary, on the rules and/or my image in others’ eyes, on not to lose face, on tactical considerations, etc.
CONFUSIONMaladjustment. Something is or feels wrong here & now, but I do not know what, or what to do to make things right. Tense, negative self- consciousness with feelings of inferiority and doubts; »self-centred«. Chaos. Dialectical YES/NO-conflicts within and/or without. Feelings in a clinch. A sense of unreality.

Before changes come about, many will start in the room of contentment. People grow accustomed to the status quo, and accept things as they are. They are either happy with the way things work, or they are hesitant to redefine their roles. When change is first introduced many people head into the room of denial. Denial is not necessarily a bad place. In addition to serving as a defense-mechanism it can help us define our priorities (Dezieck). If, for instance, a school is preparing to adopt a 1-to-1 program, many teachers may immediately step into this room. Their hesitancy will be based on many concerns such as the proper role of technology in education, the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, and the adequacy of technical training for faculty and students, all of which are legitimate concerns.

Any new technology adoption needs to be driven by pedagogical concerns and directly tied to an institution’s vision. Technology is not a cure in and of itself. The effectiveness of any technological tool is a product of its necessity, community buy in, professional development support, and the relationship of the tool to their institutions objectives.  

The key at the denial stage is for us to help faculty and students transition to the confusion room. In many ways,  a state of confusion is the most powerful place to start any journey of learning or growth. Once we reach this place of cognitive dissonance we have the ability to challenge and refine the beliefs previously held. When things are too comfortable it is nearly impossible to learn, and certainly highly difficult to process change. This key stage is pivotal, because while the door from denial to confusion is unlocked, it is not wide open. People need to have time, support, and patience before they can open the door and leave one room for another. They need to open this door on their own. Change does not, and should not, happen overnight. It also is very difficult to sustain if people are not allowed to call it into question. If the intention of any technological change is ultimately adoption, it is going to take some time.

The final stage is renewal. This stage is highly metacognitive. At this point the changes have been fully adopted and people are comfortable enough to reflect back on the process that led to this stage. When people look back on the process they may begin to see new opportunities for change, or if they become complacent, they can reenter the first room again. It is important that we take the time to analyze the rationale behind any change, and that we work together to propose new, radical ideas after doing so.

All of this has led me to the idea that of the various ingredients that are added into the recipe of education, technology is perhaps the most seasonal one. The tools we have at our disposal seem to change each day, and each time a new communication or creation tool comes into use, new challenges arise. Tools come into and fall out of fashion at an astounding rate, and that is okay. As educators we need to accept this.

We need to be realistic and acknowledge that our students will have access to these tools whether we want them to or not. It is as important for our students to go through the stages of change as it is for us as educators. We need to have strategies for teaching students how to face these changes. We cannot focus on specific technologies, we need to be technology agnostic and teach our students how to live in a world that is constantly evolving. By recognizing that change is inevitable we can take a step back, slow down, and focus on the educational side that preempts any new tool, thus smoothing out the process of adoption. Ultimately, the key is that we avoid or minimize the “valley of despair” by preparing ourselves and our students for change.

New Faculty Lunch

Feeling appreciated and welcomed.
Feeling appreciated and welcomed.

We had our new faculty lunch today. It was awesome. I feel very lucky to go to work every day with such kind and talented people. I especially enjoyed our tour with Mark Terry, and the historical insights he provided. It’s always so interesting to see how the character of a building and a community can be tied together so closely.

Goals for 2014-2015: Working Towards Redefinition Using the SAMR Model

This video gives a great overview of SAMR:

“If you have  (21st century elements integrated into lessons and throughout the year) then you have the necessary conditions for teachers to mesh their work together, and for the institution to be transformed not just at the level of the individual classroom, but at the level of teaching practice as a whole.” ~Ruben Puentedura

One of the problems with being a technology evangelist is that teachers often think that I will always “have a tool for that” or “know the latest app” when they approach me for help. While I do try to stay up-to-date on the various tools that can be of assistance in the classroom, I do so with the mentality that the individual tools are nearly meaningless. The power of technology does not lie in the individual bits of software or hardware we provide to students, but in the methods we use to implement its use effectively in our classrooms.

If the best tools to create an engaging lesson are a piece of paper and a pencil, there is nothing wrong with that. However, if the same lesson can be completely redefined and expanded in a way that uses technology to engage students in higher-order thinking, should we not aim to do so? Historically, as new tools have been introduced teachers have been eager to find creative uses for them in their classrooms. This spirit of innovation and creativity is what drives us educators to create engaging lessons, but when we do so we should always stop to think about the way in which the technology will be impacting our instruction.

I love Ruben Puentedura’s (@rubenrp)  SAMR model for precisely this reason: it creates a simple framework for measuring the quality of technological integration in a given lesson or course. SAMR Model

At the most simplistic level, technology is used merely as a substitute for the traditional tool. Like having students type an essay using an online editor like Google Docs rather than Word. Although this is a new technology, the use presents no functional change in the way the student is completing the task. This is often where teachers who are new to using technology begin, but even pros can end up in this category if they don’t have clear objectives and a great lesson plan.

On the other end of the spectrum is redefinition. When teachers reach this level of instruction their students are actually using technology in novel ways complete tasks that would have been impossible without the technology.  Kathy Schrock (@kathyschrock) has an amazing blog post in which she delves into this more deeply. She aligns the SAMR model with Bloom’s Taxonomy, and more specifically, she draws a comparison between redefinition and creating or evaluating.

As I reflect on my time as a teacher, I feel like have slowly moved along this continuum; I have moved from simply using technology to replace an older tool, to a place where I’m striving to empower my students to do something that was previous unthinkable. One example  was when they used their phones to gather GPS data on invasive species in South Seattle, then mapped these data points to Google Earth and  put all of this into a presentation they then shared with the Seattle Parks Department (Full disclosure, a project of this scale was not a one person job. I was collaborating with Ms. Dresler and Ms. Hitchcock on this).  I can also remember far too many times where I have fallen into the trap of using technology where it was not necessary.

As I begin my new role as an Educational Technology Coordinator, I hope to help teachers see the value in working towards redefining how they use technology. My goal for this year is to always keep a copy of the SAMR model handy when working with faculty, and help them try to push the boundaries of their practice. What’s more, I’m excited to support them as the put these plans in action, and celebrate their successes when they do so.

Here are some additional links that I found interesting:

SAMR in 120 Seconds

Every Classroom Matters Podcast: Using the Four-step SAMR Model to Update Your Teaching Practice

Ruben Puentedura’s Blog

Listen to This: New Books in Technology, danah boyd interview


Read This: It’s Complicated, by danah boyd

danah boyd really understands how teens interact with technology.

danah boyd really understands how teens interact with technology.

If you are a parent, teacher, or anyone who may come into contact with kids you need to read It’s Complicated by danah boyd (she leaves it lowercase intentionally). danah is a principal researcher at Microsoft, a professor at NYU, and one of the few voices of reason out there when it comes to kids and technology. She spent several years travelling the country and interviewing teens before writing this book. The aim of her research is to to see how teens are integrating  technology into their everyday lives, and how doing so shapes their interactions with the outside world.

Far too often you encounter reports about the dangers of the internet today. Many of the fears that are voiced – those regarding bullying, addiction, and online predators for instance – while serious, are far from the epidemics they are often described as. boyd is able to create numerous talking points regarding teens and the internet without resulting to such sensationalist tactics.

“Teens are passionate about finding their place in society. What is different as a result of social media is that teens’ perennial desire for social connection and autonomy is now being expressed in networked publics.” (8)

One of the first concepts boyd introduces is that of the networked public. She essentially argues that the places where teens socialize change over time as technology and society introduce or force new ways for them to network. When she was teen the mall was the primary location where teens networked, but due to changing social norms, parenting, and outright fear-mongering kids today don’t have the same level of freedom as she once did. On the most basic level, kids are really not that different than they were 20, 40 or even 60 years ago. They crave a space where they can carve out their identities, test boundaries,  build friendships, and socialize.

However, boyd points out that teens movements today are more restricted than ever before – by parents, legally imposed curfews, and even mall policies. These restrictions, coupled with the availability of online tools, push teens to create news forms of networked publics. She breaks down the issues surrounding this shift into 8 clear chapters, which can be read sequentially or on their own. As I saw it, the crux of her argument is best laid out in her own words:

“…the mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems.” (156)

The key here is that teens’ use of the internet should not be demonized or ignored. The internet is no panacea, but it can hardly be seen as the source of all that ails society. Instead, the internet and teens interactions with social media serve as a kind of bellwether, reflecting troubling trends that already exist in society. We, the adults in these teens’ lives, should use their interactions with this technology to create entry points into talking about real-world issues. When we see teens struggling online we should pause and look at the other issues which may have led to this point, rather than taking away their phones or disconnecting the internet.

If you’re intrigued, I highly encourage you to either read the book or listen to boyd discussing this on a podcast (link below). boyd addresses all of these issues in far more detail than I do in this post, but I don’t want to ruin the experience of reading this great book for you, Once you read it, I look forward to hearing what you think about it.

New Books in Sociology covering danah boyd, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”

New Books in Technology Podcast: danah boyd interview

It’s Complicated [full book, pdf]