Saturday, March 19, 2016

Gamifying ed? Just say no.

Joy and pleasure are not the same things.

By Steve Paine, used under CC
Much of what we find pleasurable--winning a round on a computer game, getting a piece of corn out of our teeth, hearing the ping of a new message on our phone--relates to surges of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that alters our behavior. It literally helps our brain send the messages that get us to move our muscles for some purpose that ultimately provides pleasure, or more dopamine release.

Sounds a bit like motivation, eh?

The brain is not stupid--if a child has no hope of success (at least from the child's point of view), there is absolutely no reason to initiate movement. Better to save the energy for something else.

I suspect the next few years we will see a rush of ed research detailing ways to maximize these dopamine rushes, much of which we already know--build on what children know, keep confidence up, make learning goals achievable.

What I worry about, though, is getting too good at this--to make children seek learning the way they build worlds in Minecraft--pushing dopamine on the brain. (It's actually the way Ritalin and Adderall work, and while we're at it, cocaine.....)

And yes, screen time in schools under certain conditions will, in fact, aid learning. But at what price?

The is plenty of evidence out there that playing more than a couple of hours of violent video games is linked to depressive signs. There is also some evidence that for some, video games may help battle depression. Both could be explained in terms of dopamine changes, and I could wile away a day seeking my own dopamine surges chasing these studies.

I used to be on the fence on gamification in education--but I have fallen off on the side of caution. Until we know the long-term effects of years of sustaining motivation through surges of dopamine prompted by screens, I think our pursuit of developing motivation in educational settings by the means of learning (as opposed to the value of what is being learned) is a dangerous game.

If that is your goal, raising pleasure-seeking children who will do anything to learn whatever it is that the state wants learned,
why not just give them cocaine?

Had a go at this with The Innovative Educator a few years ago--see comments.


C.L. said...

What I found interesting about your post was the idea that gamification could hinder a student's learning. Especially with the fact that dopamine would be involved in their learning heavily.

What I wonder is, what would be the long term effects be for students with a gamified curriculum?

Well, I found this website that discussed the psychology of gamification to keep people motivated:

I know you mentioned that this may not be the best way to maintain students in their educational endeavors, but does this mean that you are completely against gamification in any capacity in your lessons?

doyle said...

Dear C.L,

Ah, the binary condition, again. "Completely against gamification in any capacity" is more than I would claim, if nothing else because the word "gamification" is a bit more nebulous than I like.

But let me ask you this--would you be against cocaine "in any capacity" when used by children?

As a retired pediatrician, I would tell you no, there are some very limited cases when I thought cocaine was a reasonable choice. It numbs well, is a great vasoconstrictor, and it made suturing children a it more palatable.

Thanks for stopping by!

Tracy said...

But gamification is not really about video games...I have a colleague who has developed (paper) tools to use with her students based on what makes games fun - things like clear goals and tight feedback loops, failing forward, and learners knowing where they are in the learning process at all times. It's pretty good stuff and not a video game in sight!

Another colleague of mine is actually speaking about it this Tuesday at 3:30, if you are interested... Gamification: it's not all fun and games

doyle said...

Dear Tracy,

Ah, I'll be tutoring then, otherwise I'd be tempted

The gist (if I ever have one, my mind tends to wander) is that using these dopamine surges as pedagogical tools may cost more than we gain in the long run.

"Clear goals and tight feedback loops" is exactly what makes these old bones tremble.


Tracy said...

But all it is, is being clear about learning goals with students and letting them know how they are doing as they are doing it... It's about student/teacher relationship around learning. So many people teach curriculum and not students. So many people don't bother to translate curriculum into student-friendly language...nor bother to actually talk with students about why they may not be doing well or about why they are doing well. I'd say that anything that facilitates this kind of relationship is good.

doyle said...

Dear Tracy,

I agree that "being clear about learning goals with students and letting them know how they are doing as they are doing it" matters--we are teachers, after all. =)

It's particular forms of "tight feedback loops" that worry me. I was thinking about (and looking at the studies on) screen time, not paper.

On the other hand, a student working her way through a concept or a problem likely also gets surges of dopamine with each successful step, so maybe my fears are unfounded.

Still, if the dopamine is tied to the game and not working through the concept itself, feels kind of creepy to me to ask kids to do this through a medium that may ultimately prove harmful.


Tracy said...

Good morning, Michael!

I share your resistance to games... My discomfort is tied to the idea of looking for that magic pill in the form of an external reward system instead of working on our relationships with students. That is why gamification (basically structured formative assessment...) is solid as a theory. It isn't focused on playing games or trying to trick people into learning. The focus is on structuring and strengthening the learning relationship between teacher and student, even within the student him or herself. It's not about playing video games but about how we do things in our classroom.

Emily said...

Ah, I have only anecdotal evidence based on a very small sampling of home schooled students. But I do have over two decades worth of that, which obviously spanned video gaming from near-infancy on floppy disks until present.

I would posit that "gamification in education" is probably too broad for most discussions. There are arts, and there are sciences. Games are not generally good at one-size-fits-both. Even though musical notes resonate at mathematically calculable intervals, the inspiration for great music cannot be pre-programmed. When it come to taught-skills and caught-wisdom, the current state of gaming does okay with the first, but offers only a ragged net of negligible opportunity for the second.

Additionally, at a very practical, individual level, video games (as opposed to more tactile hands-on construction games) are usually better suited for reinforcing what has already been taught the old-fashioned way, especially on the 'arts' side of learning.

doyle said...

Dear Emily,

Interesting points, particularly about the broadness of the term--that's a big point. I like the analogy to music; I'd bet my practicing was fueled by the moments when the notes did resonate, allowing me to become a good musician, but never a great one (which requires a different sort of approach).

There is a lot of evidence of the harm of too much screen time, but that may be a different issue (though I am not sure of that). The scary thing is that we're at a point culturally where most parents will ignore the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics when it comes to screen time, no matter what the

Thanks for dropping by!