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Game Over: the perils of Gamifying the classroom.

No you’re not. You’re called Dave.

An excellent article in this week’s New Scientist called Power Up, by MacGregor Campbell, about an increasingly ubiquitious phenomena in teaching and even the real world : Gamification, which is exactly what it sounds like, i.e. the process of introducing game play elements into real life interactions. Turning life into a game might sound implausible, but as a social phenomena it’s well documented, especially as wireless technology becomes so miniaturised and pervasive as to allow our real life functions to be tracked and evaluated in game-like ways

How is this achieved? By imagining that your life is an enormous arcade game; only, instead of achieving new levels by demolishing pixelated obstacles, eating power pills or shooting invader sprites, you do so by performing more mundane, every day actions like brushing your teeth, doing the ironing, or similar. A sensor such as your mobile phone, or even just your own input could collect the data you need, and provide the interface between the real and the virtual world. As Campbell points out, such activities aren’t restricted to the realm of the high-tech: ever since coupons were given out with purchases, encouraging consumers to redeem them for prizes. And these days it’s a common experience for people to collect vouchers, or passwords from the backs of soft drink cans, and use them on the internet as currency to download songs, etc. In other words, virtual commodities have started to achieve actual value.

The scope for technology to increase the pervasiveness of this act is staggering: location tracking software on your phone can be wirelessly linked to central databases that then allocate you points for, for example, visiting a pub so that you build up loyalty points redeemable against further purchases. Your jog to the park can be monitored by your pedometer and turned into a number, encouraging you to beat your high score. And Wii fitness games most obviously blur the boundaries between the game and the activity until, presumably, you’re power-golfing yourself into a size 8 dress, or something (I don’t know golf very well. Is it high impact?).

How does this relate to the classroom? Because it intersects neatly with another phenomena that is increasingly popular: virtual rewards. Perhaps you’ve used them yourself? Superficially they’re simply a more sophisticated way of recording a Gold Star, or a Tick: instead of giving the rewardee either, you instead give them a sticker with a code printed on it. The children then take these codes, log on to an appropriate website with a personal user name, enter the reward code, and then get the ability to, for example, customise an avatar or play on online game. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. I mean, I was surprised to find that people can actually pay to buy power-ups on most online games, and even my beloved Angry Birds app for the iPhone has a cheeky ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ option for a bargain 59p. Er, which is cheating, isn’t it?

But I digress. The link between fiscal and virtual currency has been achivieved; which is cute, because at its heart, money, of course, doesn’t exist- or rather value is a concept rather than an object. So I suppose it’s appropriate that if we can trade speculatively in a futures market, we can buy and sell electronic assets. Don’t you pine for the days people took pigs to markets and swapped them for bales of hay? Now it’s all Magic Beans.

Do they work in the classroom? Speaking from experience they certainly can do: the younger children are big fans, and actively seek to be rewarded, often loudly indicating that they’re performing the desired behaviour in order to get their Mario Gold. The older ones mostly eschew it, realising with age that the opportunity to clad their tiny online avatar with a pirate’s scarf isn’t exactly the white-knuckle thrill ride it used to be, especially if it involves any actual effort. But that’s the same effect you find with actual gold stars and the like, so no great problem there.

Never do this.

No, the problem lies in something far more basic: namely the problem of motivating children using external rewards itself. When we are very young, and socially acceptable value systems are unknowns to us, just as most empirical knowledge is absent from the Blank Slates of our mind, we need to be taught right and wrong (or, if you’re a moral non-realist, accepted from non-accepted values). This process is considerably accelerated by the use of incentives: positive ones (like carrots, if you’re a donkey) or negative ones (the goad, the reprimand, the sanction). Children come to associate discouraged behaviour with punitive experiences, and more agreeable behaviour with comfort and acceptance. It’s not exactly nuclear physics; every animal with a decent cognitive ability can master it.

The problem lies in that we use these reward systems as a means to an end: that the child should become habituated into seeing certain courses of actions as desirable, and others undesirable. The purpose of the activity is not to emphasise the desirability of the reward, but the desirability of the behaviour associated with the reward. In other words, if I give a kid a Smartie for tidying his room, I’m hoping that he’ll eventually learn to do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because he’s a Smartie addict. In other words, the reward for the action itself, which initially is extrinsic to the action, becomes intrinsic. And this, according to the Categorical Imperative, is what we might call duty.

Teacher: ‘Is that my head?’

Duty is considered by deontologists to be the only perfectly moral motive. Why? Because it is the only motive that excludes self interest and consequential gain. If I teach a child that every time he hands in his homework he’ll get a lollipop, the question I must ask myself is, is he doing it because he’s conscientious and dedicated, or because lollipops float his boat? The only way to find out is to take the lollipops away and find out. You might not like the answer.

Self interest has always been one of the the world’s most ancient and powerful motivators: Adam Smith took it as one of his central assumptions in the Wealth of Nations: that competition was the engine of human psychology. Darwin too took it to be a foundational truth: when resources are scarce we compete. Shaw called it the Life Force, and Kant claimed that we all instinctively had the love of our own lives uppermost in our basic desires. What’s in it for me? is such a universally acknowledged motivator that it scarcely needs to be expressed in the creation of any contract, tacit or formal. But the answer we should be seeking, if we are to consider ourselves in any way enlightened beings, is sometimes ‘Nothing: there’s nothing in it for me.’

If you help an old lady across the road for a fiver, you might be doing a good thing for a bad reason: because it suggests you wouldn’t do it without the reward. If however you do it because you believe it’s the right thing to do, regardless of your benefit, then you’ll be reliably inspired to do so in the absence of reward. Altruism, while not the exclusive litmus of goodness, is probably more reliable an barometer than naked self interest. Egoism, even of the enlightened variety, will only support moral conduct as long as the participants visibly, perceptibly benefit. Which means the system collapses when our interests are perceived to be at risk. Even societies based entirely on this structure (the ‘social contact’ beloved of Hobbes, Locke,and other legislative forefathers) contain this weakness: that morality can never be based entirely on self-interest, no matter how cleverly constructed it is to be mutual. In other words, kindness can never be conceived as entirely a rational enterprise, because it’s a value, and not reducible to articles of fact or quantity. It can only be conveyed, by parenting and education.

‘I’m worried my life lacks meaning.’

And because moral action is a value rather than a fact, we have to be careful how we reward students. If we make the link between good conduct and palpable benefits too direct, we risk encouraging good conduct only when rewards are available. The reverse of this is a frightening acceptance of bad conduct in the absence of reward. So any system of treats, stars, codes or gamified assets has to be treated carefully, otherwise we might just find that we’re teaching our students laziness, selfishness and egocentricity.

If you’re a good teacher, you don’t bust your backside trying to help your students because there’s a bonus, or a power-up; you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Any benefit to you should be incidental- although recognition and a warm rosy glow are nice of course. Alasdair MacIntyre would draw a distinction between external and internal goods: in his book Beyond Virtue, he discussed how the value of an activity should reside in the activity itself; Aristotle thought that the Good Life was, amongst other things, people pursuing actions that were ends in themselves rather than means to an end.

I agree. Rewards, if overdone, lead to vice, not virtue; when they are achieved, they should be for actions that merit them, not actions that are merely expected, not at the post adolescent stage. To do otherwise is to devalue the currency of reward, and to imply that all normal conduct should be accompanied by reward. Well, life isn’t like that. I don’t want to teach children to be complacent; I want them to appreciate self-sacrifice and restraint as well as hedonism: the former are vital to understanding the latter, and no reward system should teach children that life is an enormous chocolate box of increasing levels of diversity and sensuality, without also informing them that somewhere inside every box, there, too, lurks the horrors of the ginger, or the macaroon.

Your new line manager.

Jesse Schell, a video game designer, uses the term ‘Gamespocalypse’ to describe the way the world might be if gamification is used to exploit and corrupt people, perhaps in an effort to make them more obedient consumers, or by attaching exploitative values coded into the reward algorithms of the gaming process. We can see this effect on a much more subtle level in the way we reward our pupils.

Less is more. There are no Level Bosses to bash in life. I suspect it’s a good deal more complex than that.

Continue? (Y/N)

Evil detentions: It’s your time you’re wasting

‘Can’t I do something ironic instead?’

Ah, the good old fashioned detention, unlovely and unloved by teacher and student alike. But if you spend more than a week in a school, you’ll be on first name terms with them pretty sharp, because they remain the stand-by of sanctions, the .45 in the teacher’s naughty clip. Let me lay out the logic behind their invention, and if I go too fast, I’ll refer you back to the start of this paragraph:

Kid mucks about; kid gets detention; kid doesn’t enjoy detention; kid associates mucking about with something he doesn’t enjoy. Desired outcome? A reduction in mucking about.

Like I say, it’s pretty complex. Actually, no, it’s simple; it’s as simple as a lever on a pivot. And that’s what it is: a machine for reducing poor behaviour using the most obvious, intuitively visible axioms known to psychology- we avoid things we dislike. Jeremy Bentham, eat your heart out, because ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’ I believe that master practitioners of this theory refer to the carrot and the stick, but I don’t want to get too technical at this point.

And you know what? It works. How about that? I can hear logic Nazis hopping around right now, saying, ‘No it doesn’t! It doesn’t always work!’ Relax, amigos, we know that. Detentions aren’t the universal answer to misbehaviour any more than a great big hug can mend a broken heart. But they’re a bloody good tool to have in your bat-belt. Most kids don’t like them (unless they’re supernaturally lonely), and the classroom practitioner will find that if he applies these more or less fairly, with rigour and consistency, then the majority of kids will learn that crime doesn’t pay.

Of course they don’t always work. Usually for these reasons:

1. They’re not applied fairly. Give out loads on a Monday when your head hurts or your patience is short, and the kids will rightly judge you to be a despot, ruling by whim. Cue: La Résistance française
2. They’re not applied routinely: if you say that throwing snowballs in the classroom will lead to a spell in the Big House, then mean it.
3. The kids try the old ‘not turning up’ trick. Ah, Moriarty, you escape my clutches again. Will we grapple thus forever? But the reason that many kids pull the vanishing act is because they know- they know, the little tinkers- that sometimes a tired, overworked teacher will forget, or forget to care about it, and fail to follow up. And I use the word ‘fail’ for a reason, because the kid then learns that sometimes just ignoring the teacher’s sanctions will lead to…well, no consequence at all. A dangerous learning experience.

Now, ‘reason why they sometimes don’t work number 4’ is the reason why I’m writing this right now and not building my snowman to greater heights of raffishness (I’ve sourced carrot and coal, but finding a scarf I don’t mind rotting in a puddle is a challenge). Straight in at number four is the idea that- inexplicably- some teachers think a detention isn’t supposed to be unpleasant. Now, most teachers don’t enjoy punishing others; there’s not many people who would enjoy deliberately making another human being uncomfortable, unless you were, say, Jeremy Kyle or Donald Trump. Congratulations: it means you’re a human being. I’d be far more worried if a teacher rubbed their hands together and said, ‘Oh boy, now I get to make some kids sit behind desks as a punishment!’ Oddball; quit teaching and go write letters to the Daily Mail about immigration.

The reason why I bring this up is because one of the most common questions I get on the Behaviour Forums is ‘what should I get the kids to do in detentions?’ To which I always answer, ‘Something ‘orrible.’ And I mean it. Because if it doesn’t involve something that they will try to avoid in the future, then it loses all value as a deterrent. You might as well not do it. Which means that, no matter how well meaning you are, you must never turn a detention into Play Time; never sit with them and have a ten minute ‘The Chat’ (definite article deliberate) asking them what football team they support; never have them sitting with their jackets on texting their pals, telling them what a spanner you are. It needs to chafe. Pinch, even.

So what does this look like? Nothing draconian. Get them writing lines, the sanction that time forgot. Why not? It’s boring, and works beautifully as a metaphor of  the intrinsic futility of being an arse. Or get them copying out of a book. Or get them doing some extra work (tasks don’t need to be entirely useless). But not doing homework (because all you’ve done then is displace work at home into the classroom- you’ve probably given them an extra twenty minutes at home on C.O.D.), not talking to their mates, and not, not , not doing something they enjoy.

So I slap my forehead in frustration when I hear advice like I read in this week’s TES, when A J Booker (who runs a website called…well, see the title of this post) suggests that teachers create imaginative and creative tasks for kids to do in detentions. He calls them ‘evil’. Hmm. I’ve read a few of them, and they sound extremely odd- some of them are like games; some of them are thinking puzzles; some of them belong in the category of ‘ironic punishments’. But he seems rather pleased that the kids think they’re cool (kids don’t say cool any more. I checked with some kids), and that some of them even looked forward to them. Now, I have no axe to grind against Mr Booker personally, who I am sure is a model of integrity and professionalism, but I have an entire dwarfish army of axes, ready for sharpening when I hear that teachers should make kids do something groovy and edgy in detentions. Grind, grind, grind.

The reason I think this is pretty much the exact opposite of what kids should do in detentions is because of my initial argument: that detentions should deter. If you give a kid something useful to do, where he feels valued, empowered, and engaged, then isn’t that a reward rather than a punishment? While I applaud Mr Booker’s ingenuity (and I really do; I admire any professional who reflects upon education in a meaningful way) I can’t emphasise enough how wrong this all is. The point is that you want kids to not want to come to detentions. Their purpose, in a way, is to annihilate the reason for their own existence. They’re the kamikaze pilots of education.

The second reason I don’t agree is that new teachers (especially) are paralysed with enough guilt already: are my lessons engaging enough? Have I differentiated for everyone, including the ones that aren’t there? Have I nurtured their human rights? Have we played Ker-Plunk! enough? Did I recognise their voice? They don’t need another reason to feel like failures: are my detentions engaging enough? Give me strength– at least enough to brain myself with a frying pan so that I can wake up and hope it was all a dream. At the end of the day, when the kids who have told you how rubbish your lesson was, or who bleated and wailed at the injustice of having to work, return to your cave, the last thing you need to lose a bead of sweat over is devising an ironic, cryptic and delicious punishment…that isn’t actually a punishment.

‘At last! I was freezing!’

Punishing children is unpleasant. It needs to be entered into with the cool neutral attitude of a technician, not the ardour of a pervert. We don’t do it because it makes us feel good. We don’t do it because it makes them feel good. We do it because it’s a tool to improve behaviour. We do it because we want the kids to realise that behaving like a prat will only damage their own long term interests, and that of others.

There’s nothing evil about it. We’re on the side of the angels. And tough love is still love.