Teaching kids to win

October 7th, 2010 by

Darth Vader Christmas by Thomas Hawk @ FlickrA friend of mine once taught at a school in London’s East End. It was what a recruitment consultant might describe as a “challenging” teaching environment. The role was less Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, more Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Kids weren’t climbing on their desks so they could chant “O Captain, my captain”, they were just finding a better angle for throwing their chair at the blackboard.

Throwing away the text book
The most disruptive students – let’s take Darren as an example – made teaching almost impossible. My friend’s solution: let them send texts and play games on their phones. Despite this being against school rules, it made his job easier, and there was less disruption for those that actually wanted to learn. It was the most beneficial solution for all concerned, although big things weren’t expected of Darren come exam time.

Anyone that’s been to school can sympathize to some extent with Darren. For every inspiring Dead Poet’s Society moment, there are countless instances of dead boring subject matter and dull repetition. Sounds familiar huh? Almost like having a dull job. With that in mind, it’s not much of a leap to think that theories on what makes a satisfied worker will have some relevance in the classroom.

A previous post discusses Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s idea of Flow. Flow is an optimal state of activity where one is totally immersed in the performance of a task. Such a state is common when people strive to achieve a clear, challenging goal that requires the exercise of their skills and abilities. Also important is direct feedback and a sense of personal control. The activity itself can be anything from a microtask to a long, complex game.

If you’ve ever been involved in a competitive game, you probably have experienced the sensation. This is because games generally contain the key elements required to achieve the state of flow. As discussed in the earlier post, if you could make work more like a game, you would have more success engaging your workforce. Or, if the methods of Lee Sheldon are anything to go by, your classroom.

Class war
Sheldon teaches courses in game design. When teaching his students difficult concepts, he uses the terminology, structure and reward systems of the World of Warcraft MMOG to motivate and grade them. The results include increased class participation and motivation.

It’s easy to dismiss this approach as only working because the students – wannabe game designers – are likely to be highly familiar with the quest-based teaching plan. Replicate it in a class full of Darrens and the results probably wouldn’t be as positive. But the idea of improving participation through employing a relevant game-based structure has been shown to be effective in other cases too.

A game called Re-Mission has improved the way adolescents and young adults manage their cancer treatment. The game itself saw users control a character called Roxxi, battling cancer cells in a highly accurate depiction of a human body. Those that played the game showed greater adherence to the strict drug-taking regimens, and retained chemotherapy drugs in their bodies for longer periods than the control group. The games creators HopeLab assert the game works because it gives the players “a sense of power and control over their cancer”.

That final quote includes what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi cites as two crucial elements of achieving flow. Now, if only my teaching friend could think of a game structure relevant to his students, bigger things might be expected of Darren come exam time. Maybe a quest that involved throwing chairs at the blackboard could get things flowing.