Changing the Education Game

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Let’s face it: our current educational system is broken. It is a sad realization, but we are not preparing our younger generations for the challenges and requirements of the coming decades. The system has to change and change fundamentally. Octalysis Gamification offers insights and tools to actually make that change. Together we can design that ensures better education, engaged and creative students and a workforce that is prepared for the requirements of a new knowledge-based and innovation rich global economy and society.

Why Education is broken…
For hundreds of years, the way you were thought at school has only changed marginally and remains based on 19th century models of teaching. Meanwhile, our economy and societies have changed rapidly and will continue to do so even faster in the future due to ongoing innovation, the internet of things and increased global connectivity. Our production based economy is rapidly being replaced by a new knowledge-based economy where innovation and creativity are needed to succeed.

But teaching students how to be innovative and creative needs a system that allows for autonomous choice, trial-and–error, non-linear learning and empowerment of intrinsic motivation. However, our current educational system is not suited for this purpose:

1. It promotes linear learning

We still treat all our students with the same uniform one-size-fits-all approach: everybody in class starts at the same point and follows exactly the same learning path with the same time lines attached to it. In most classrooms there is no place for individual paths to glory. Follow the herd or get left behind.

However, this is not how effective learning takes place. Most students learn best in sprints, taper off and then do another sprint. Also, we know that learning is more efficient through trial and error, something that is not possible in the current win-lose testing set-up. Successful games have perfected the art of learning through fail-learn-fail-learn–succeed. In a game you learn not be be afraid of failure: you pick yourself up and try again, and again until you succeed. The test is not the target, but finding the path to the solution is. In summary: we need more non-linear learning!

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2. There is too much emphasis on Extrinsic Motivation

Most children are pushed quite heavily with the lure and threat of getting high test scores in their educational journey. This means that the motivation to do these tests is overly extrinsic (Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment). Many students mainly learn with the expectation of getting a reward. While keeping score is a useful tool to provide justification for innately intrinsic behavior (learning), it leads to over-justification when used in abundance. Extrinsic over-justification kills Intrinsic Motivation (like creativity, problem-solving and long term thinking). Preparing for the future you say? Not in the current system!

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In fact the pressure on students is increased even more by parents who constantly push for more homework and better test performances. They leverage their social relationship with their children (Core Drive 5: Social Influence and Relatedness), which leads to increased anxiety for children who fear disapproval by their family (leading to Core Drive 8: Fear and Avoidance of Loss). As parents themselves have been raised in the same reward based system as their children, it is only natural that they push the way they do. Unfortunately.

3. School is boring…

Humans don’t like to sit through long, one-directional lectures or read through long texts. We learn through stories. We learn through doing and trial and error.
Crucial in this respect is that students want to feel a sense of agency in their learning. With this I mean that you need to feel that you feel like you are in control of your own path/life and that you believe in your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior.

Unfortunately, the overly one-directional teaching method takes agency away from children and leads to underdeveloped feedback on your own autonomous choices (Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback). Since this Core Drive is a long term motivator for people, this underdevelopment leads to even less intrinsic motivation to learn in the long term. Extrinsic overjustification beat the intrinsic motivation down and the loss of a sense of agency is slowly killing it off…

What can we do? Is all lost?
A system that has been sustained over many generations will take time to change. Don’t expect an educational revolution anytime soon. Teachers and parents themselves are wary of change and even children that have been in the system may find the change awkward at first.

Most people suffer from Status Quo bias (Core Drive 8), which means that our brains actively resist any change regardless of the rational benefit of the change. So, we need to make small steps, but significant ones! Let’s see what we can do:

Create a Journey that children can believe in
Children often feel that school is a road to nowhere. Parents often like to pitch distant ‘adult’ goals: “You can become a doctor if you study hard. Or a veterinarian!”. Children believe in such dream only in role play, where they can actually act like they are in these jobs already. They hardly ever get motivated to do well at school because of this dangling of distant opportunities. It’s not present enough to be motivational.

What can work better is to let students join a Journey to a higher purpose that is connected to concrete daily or weekly activities. Epic themes, like saving the animal world, and combatting poverty are themes that children can relate to. Connect these themes to learning activities (the educational desired actions) so that doing their homework, or finishing a group assignment progresses them on their Journey with that higher purpose. When the class levels up through completing these tasks they unlock awesome new content or it allows them to invite an environmental specialist who shares her secrets about how to save animals. This also contributes greatly to a sense of agency and progress (Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity and Core Drive 2: Development and Accomplishment).

Adjust the grading system to reflect the leveling up system
Our current test grading system often feels like a pass or fail environment. A zero-sum extrinsic rewards set up that leads children to do just enough to pass, nothing more. In games you almost never lose your full progress, you just stay at the level you were at and if you fail you just try again. Until you discover how to solve problem. The objective is not passing (or failing) but learning how to overcome obstacles and learning through non-linear learning.

If we grade students with levels and experience points they will not have the fear of losing as much as they do now. You never fail hard, only need to try again while keeping your level intact. The only option is progress, in whatever speed you are capable of.

Create Class Group Quests where individual goals and that of the group overlap.
Social cohesion in classes is mostly lagging and many students feel out of place in their class group. Create Group Quests (Core Drive 5: Social Influence and Relatedness) so that students can complete and focus on collaboration more than competition. Make sure that students can contribute at their own level and allow them to contribute in the areas that they are particularly good at. Group Quests work really well if you design it in a way that individual goals of students (leveling up to unlock new skills and power ups) overlap with the quest (here the Epic Journey theme can play a great role).

Ensure enough Unpredictability in their Journey to add additional fun and spice!
School mostly feels like a drag for students: the same routine everyday (a little bit how work feels for most people). It is important to design for unpredictable events to happen relatively often (but irregularly).

Make sure that unexpected surprises are build in. Students need to know that these surprises will come if they do desired actions (finish an assignment) but they don’t know when they will happen or what the surprise reward will be. Perhaps there is a mystery speaker that turns up one day. Another day students get to play their favorite game for an hour or get 15 minutes more playtime outside.

Create a number of choices that students can take to level up in their path.
Not everybody is good in the same topics. Allow students to focus more on their strengths and desist from continuous hammering on improving weaknesses. In games, we don’t put our healers in the battle front line nor do we keep tanks in the back line. Every player type has their own preferences and playing style. In the end though, each path reaches a satisfying outcome.

Highlight and praise the strengths of a student’s strong area every alternate week. One week it can be Sports, the other it is Math, and the next Languages. Make sure to emphasise how the particular strength is going to contribute to the joint Epic Meaning and Calling Journey and how students can profit from using the strengths of the other students to advance faster in their individual Journey.

Is there more?
The above are just a few easy to implement changes that will result in increased student engagement. But it is still a far cry from structurally changing our educational system. In the end we want a system where there is no separation of the user experience in or out of the classroom.
A system where children happily do homework assignments as they enable them to level up in their Journey, while constantly unlocking new skills and new areas to discover or conquer. A system that will allow them to work on assignments with their classmates online, or even with other kids of their level globally. There is no reason for education to be limited by national boundaries anymore. In real life and through social media we are already constantly in contact with people from different nationalities and cultures and we should open our educational system to be a much more global system.

What if we could build an Alternate Reality Game (a game that uses the real world as a platform and connects it to virtual experience(s)) for education that makes the above reality. A system perhaps as addictive as Minecraft, Candy Crush or World of Warcraft. We know that we have the technology and design knowledge to do this, so it only needs resources and commitment to pull it off.

In terms of economic feasibility, such a game would be a no-brainer. The global user base for such a compelling game would be in the hundreds of millions users and low fee subscription revenues would be astounding.

It needs leadership and political will to make this happen though. At Octalysis we believe in this mission, and will push for educational change whenever we speak in public or interact with officials. Help us with our mission to change the world by sharing this blog post or write to us!

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