Kevin: A recent survey finds that nearly two-thirds of parents want schools to experiment with new ways of teaching children. But where do we begin? With so many issues to address, some influential voices are saying, "We should look to games for inspiration." And I'm wondering if they might be onto something. Can games reinvigorate our kids' zest for learning? Can they improve student outcomes as a result? And do they offer solutions to the problems that have challenged our systems for generations and were so apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic? This is what I want to know. And today, I'm joined by Dr. Barry Fishman to find out.
Kevin: Dr. Barry Fishman is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Learning Technologies in the University of Michigan Schools of Education and Information, and he is a nationally recognized expert in the development of usable, scalable, and sustainable learning innovations. He was a coauthor of the Obama administration's U.S. National Education Technology Plan, and he is the co-creator of GradeCraft, a game-inspired learning management system that helps instructors build courses that encourage students to focus on the craft of learning. He joins us today to discuss how games can help solve some of the biggest issues in education and how they can help refocus our efforts on the fundamental goals of teaching and learning. Barry, welcome to the show.
Barry: Thanks so much for having me on your podcast. I'm looking forward to this conversation.
Kevin: Wow. I'm really intrigued by your work, but I always like to ask people how they got to where they are. And I'm sure you've been asked this before, but did you know you wanted to be a college professor? Then I want to hear how you migrated to this fascinating area of games as a learning tool.
Barry: I did not always know I wanted to be a professor. I knew as a student in college that I was intrigued by technology and intrigued by how I learned. And I followed several paths that wound around a bit and, almost by accident, led me to graduate school, where I studied technology and learning and started to develop and deepen my focus on technology and learning. Ended up in a doctoral program called The Learning Sciences, which at the time was brand new. In fact, I have the very first doctorate in the field of The Learning Sciences by that name.
Kevin: Oh, wow.
Barry: There were many other able colleagues right behind me, of course, and right with me all the way through. It's a field that thinks about how people learn, how context shapes the way people learn, and how we can design learning environments that create more effective and interactive learning. And for me, technology is a part of that. Even though technology was part of what sparked my interest in learning and eventually in education, I came to realize quickly, it was not really about the technology. It's really about the environment that we design, in which the technology might play a key role. Certain things are much easier to do with technology. You could probably replicate the experience in some way without the technology, but it would be a lot harder. Might take a lot longer. You might not have as many opportunities available to you.
I found this work intriguing, and it led to the development of what I've come to call gameful learning, which is an approach that looks at what happens in well-designed games and tries to take the principles out of the game environment and apply them to the school environment in a way that fosters greater engagement. And, I think, a lot of what my current work focuses around today are ways to re-engage students with learning. And we have a very long history of using games as teaching tools. Simulations go way back. Way before computer technology was part of schools, we were involved in simulation types of games. The game Monopoly is an example of the simulation game to get people to think about rent and property and ownership. And games themselves can be excellent teaching tools, but games have a challenge when it comes to learning, which is that they tend to be designed around very focused concepts. So you couldn't replace your whole curriculum with games. For one thing, you would have to constantly be looking for different games to engage your students with, for each different concept, each different idea. And what happens when we do that, and this used to be a huge problem with technology too, is you would spend more time learning how to play the game than you would spend learning by playing the game.
Kevin: When you started gameful learning — I want to get into the nuts of that concept. You said it was rooted in your deep dissatisfaction with the flaws in the grading system. The notion of gameful learning really began, correct me if I'm wrong, with this feeling that this system, our education system, was so focused on the grading process that had got in the way of the learning process. I mean, is that fair?
Barry: I think that's fair. And it's important to understand that grading itself is a kind of technology that came around in popular use maybe a hundred, hundred and fifty years ago, and has been hotly debated since it was introduced as to whether it was good for learning or not. And my belief, rooted in lots of research and observation, is that grading systems are good for sorting and ranking the way we currently use them, but they aren't primarily about learning, and they're not primarily for the learners. And arguably, when I was in high school, high school was about preparing for college, preparing for the kind of learning you might do in college. Today, I observed that high school is really about preparing for the college application. And that's in part, it's an effect of the grading system, where a student today believes that what it's going to take, I should say, what it takes to get into college is complicated. And so, people tend to focus on the things they think they can control, which are things like GPAs and test scores. GPAs and test scores become, they become the score of the game. They're what students work for. And when you design the game that way, you've designed the game so the incentives are all wrong. They're focused on the outcome, not the process.
Kevin: It does a disservice to kids. And your point is equally important, that the focus on the outcomes is really a misplaced focus. But, so, talk about gameful learning and how that, actually, how we would apply that to help change this flawed system.
Barry: School could be thought of like a kind of a game, but because of the way we designed all these systems, the game had, it was a terrible game with all of the wrong incentive structures that were leading students to focus on the wrong things, in this case, the outcome, their GPA, or their grade. So what could we do that would open things up? That would make it possible for students to focus more on the learning and to actually make it so that struggle was something that was worth engaging in; it was a good thing? Because when you're struggling, when you're facing desirable difficulties, that's when we understand that some of the deepest learning takes place.
Gameful learning, if you boiled it down to its core, it might be about ... One theory we draw from a lot is called Self-Determination Theory. Can we support autonomy? Can we support a sense of belonging? And can we provide support for students developing their own competence?
So, those are really important elements. And by autonomy, we mean, can we allow you to make choices that matter? Do you have a say in the order you approach the learning and in how you're approaching the learning? Those are things that can boost your engagement. Do you feel a sense of belonging? Do you know why you're learning what you're learning? Do you feel like you're in a shared endeavor with other people? And that could be just being recognized within the classroom. Could also be a larger sense of purpose or mission for why we're learning this and understanding where this fits into a future version of yourself. That core idea. Autonomy, belonging, and competence is key to supporting engagement and intrinsic motivation. And there are decades of research in Motivation Theory that show that when those three elements are supported, well, people are more resilient, they're more intrinsically motivated, a term we use in psychology, intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic, or working for rewards. And they are more likely to take on greater challenges and persist through those challenges.
And when those things are taken away from an environment, then you have to provide that extrinsic motivation to get people to engage. And in the case of school, that extrinsic motivation comes from grades. Grades are the reward or punishment for the effort you put in.
Kevin: Yeah. And look, I love those three concepts. I particularly connect with autonomy. I frankly believe, and this is my own sort of recalibration of what you just said, that students need to own their learning process. And I see some schools are getting to that when it comes to mastery of a subject, as opposed to “everyone, turn to page 42.” Doesn't matter if you really should be on page 24 because of your reading level, or you could easily be on page 86 because of your reading level.” Everyone, turn to page 42; teachers: stand and deliver; be quiet; don't say anything.” You know, that's just passé.
I mean, I think that this idea of autonomy and personal accountability, grounded in engagement, as you describe, I mean, I just love that concept. And particularly since we have a growing number of school-age children who are totally disengaged from traditional schools and are losing critical analytical thinking skills because they're not, they don't own their learning process. So, distinguish for me the idea of gameful learning and the popular phrase that I've even used, gamification.
Barry: Gamification: it has been very popular for a long time in many sectors. I often think about a kind of the sort of prototypical example of gamification might be airline frequent flyer miles. Or S&H saving stamps. Maybe for some of our listeners who have been around for a while like us.
Kevin: I appreciate the reference there, Barry.
Barry: So, the idea here is that we want to provide points or badges or some kind of reward for you to engage with the environment that we have provided for you. But key to that environment, key to gamification is that, in most of its applications, it doesn't involve changing anything about the environment itself. It can be effective. I don't want to take away the idea that you can use gamification, extrinsic rewards, points, leader boards, things like that, in order to encourage students to comply with the system that you've set up. But I would much rather think about how to make the system better so that people naturally want to engage with it.
Kevin: I get it. That makes sense. You're winning me over, Barry. I tell you, I was wondering about that distinction, but it does make sense.
Barry: There are some features of games that are kind of nice for thinking about it. So, earlier I was critiquing the idea that in a percentage-based grading system, how you perform along the way affects the final mark you might get. And that doesn't really reflect how learning should happen or naturally does happen. Well, in a well-designed game, or in most games, you don't start with a hundred percent, and then it's yours to lose. You start with zero, and everything's about making progress toward some goal. So that's a reframing of the system, right? What if our assessment systems were based, not on some running average so that people who struggle earlier are punished for that struggle, but based on where you end up? That's progress, not percentage.
Kevin: How would you apply gameful learning to a history class in a way that will allow educators to feel like this is something they can practically do today?
Barry: History is actually a perfect environment for thinking about gameful learning. Like I said, there's no imperfect environment. There's no terrible environment, but history is great because a lot of what you try to do in history is, ideally, learn how to think like a historian. So, you're taking on identities, and you're trying to get into other people's identities. What are the stories we're reading about the past? Who's telling that story? How do they think?
Everyone in the history curriculum becomes a kind of character, and you become a kind of interpreter of their stories, ideally, as you're learning to weigh evidence, weigh account, give new accounts and explanations for how events might have unfolded the way they unfolded, and what the causes of those events were, and what the effects of those events were. That's all very important.
So, to think about history gamefully, you start with that goal, and then you might think about ways, different activities and different approaches that students can use to first gain the information they need to gain. Second, to experiment, play with those ideas to test them out. Then you want to think about: what are the different opportunities you have to assess the student's learning? And to give them a chance to express their learning or their struggles, their misunderstandings as they go. And so, after you think about what the goals of the class are, the next thing we really get people to focus on are what are the opportunities students have for demonstrating that understanding? And then, we encourage you to diversify those opportunities. So it's not all one kind of expression. It's not all one test or one paper or one project.
Kevin: You know, during my educational process, and even when I was a younger lawyer practicing law, I always fell back to the who, what, when, where, why, how, and this idea of having probing questions to guide the learning journey. I mean, I think that is sort of reinvigorating in and of itself. So, I think what you describe is perfect. So, Barry, this is what I really want to know. Will the approach of gameful learning improve student outcomes? And if so, how?
Barry: Well, I think whenever you focus on student engagement, the goal, of course, is to improve student outcomes. And we've seen just lots of evidence that greater engagement leads to improved learning. And then, depending on how you measure that learning, improved outcomes. So for me, this is about reengaging students in school in a way that they can accomplish the lofty goals we've set for them.
There's a lot of talk right now, especially as we're coming into this next phase of the pandemic, or hopefully coming out of the pandemic, about student disengagement. Students don't seem to be engaged. And some of that had to do with remote schooling; some of that has to do with all the different burdens people are carrying with them. But a number of scholars have pointed out that this challenge of engagement was not brought on by the pandemic. The pandemic just made us a lot more aware of it. It might have broadened it substantially, but it really heightened our thinking about it.
And for me, you can't talk about learning at all if you're not talking about engagement first. That's the necessary first step to learning: to be focused, to be engaged. Gameful learning, and there are other approaches too, even gamification, for its flaws, are ways to think about getting students to focus, getting students to be more engaged — to, as I put it often in my work, to make school into a better game that people want to play, where they recognize that struggle is not just an unfortunate part of the process, but a key part of the process. And that, I think, will prepare learners for the kinds of challenges that we have, frankly, always faced, but for which we definitely are needing to prepare them for in the future that we're rapidly moving toward.
Kevin: Well said. Professor Barry Fishman, you're doing great work, my friend. Thank you for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Barry: Thank you very much. A pleasure to be with you.
Dr. Barry Fishman is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Learning Technologies in the University of Michigan Schools of Education and Information. He is a nationally recognized expert in the development of usable, scalable, and sustainable learning innovations.
He was a co-author of the Obama Administration's U.S. National Educational Technology Plan. He is also the co-creator of GradeCraft, a game-inspired learning management system that helps instructors build courses that encourage students to focus on the craft of learning.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.