EFL Gamification 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation.

Gamification is a buzzword.  Gamification is being widely–and often mistakenly–deployed in business situations recently. But because of the haphazard way it is being deployed and the mixed results it seems to be achieving, it is often viewed suspiciously by many in the world of business, and most in the world of education, where the very mention of games seems to suggest an offensive lack of seriousness. There are good and bad reasons to be suspicious of gamification, and it is not surprising that many game designers have hesitations about it.

The main problem, as I see it, is that superficial features of gamification (especially points, badges, and leaderboards) are being applied without enough thought being given to the underlying cognitive and emotional constructs people –customers, employees, learners–bring to any situation. For education, gamification, game design, and user experience (UX) design present an opportunity to re-examine the mechanics and dynamics of motivation and behavior change. Yes, they apply to teaching, including language teaching.

The first post in this series looked at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and rewards.  My main point was that depending on the type of task or behavior, the use of extrinsic rewards–like many of the the tools of gamification–can help or hinder the development of intrinsic motivation. This is a critical point, but motivation is not the only factor in behavior change. So this post will focus on behavior change and the other factors involved: triggers, ability, and context. Yes, we are still in theoretical territory here, I’m afraid. But I promise to get more practical in future posts.

B.J. Fogg, a professor at Stanford U., is someone you might not have ever heard of if you are an EFL/ESL educator. He does not do research on motivation in education. Instead, his research is in how technology changes human behavior. And his main audience is business people involved in Internet-related start-ups, trying to get people to give their ideas or services a try. EFL teachers are often faced with a challenge that is really not so different from these young entrepreneurs: how do we get learners to engage in specific behaviors, in our case, ones  that we know will help them improve in proficiency? High school students in Japan are limited in the number of classroom hours of English. They are limited by a lack of technology infrastructure in schools. They are limited by the priorities of schools that want more kids to pass certain university entrance exams. That means that a lot of lesson time is spent on teacher explanations of language that is too difficult for many learners in the room, and not enough level-appropriate input is given, and not enough meaning-focused output activities are attempted. One of the possible answers to this problem is in everyone’s hands–mobile devices. But learners have no idea of how to make use of them and teachers are really really reluctant to even try to get learners to do so, fearing accusations of unfairness, steep digital learning literacy curves, and chasms of technology coordination and control issues. And the whole undertaking would require a massive shift in educational culture to begin with. But, ah, if only it were possible…Teachers could flip lessons, focus more on engaging learners in tasks requiring language production, and concentrate much much more on giving good formative feedback on comprehension or skill development in class before  the final summative tests. What I would like to suggest is that by making use of better design–and that almost certainly includes some game design techniques, but will also likely include user user experience (UX) design knowledge–we can increase engagement, push learners toward being more active participants in language learning, create a better learning experience, and hopefully get increased time on task and increased effort, and (eventually) increased target language encounters outside of class. Seriously, who wouldn’t want their classes to be more fun and more effective at the same time?

But before we get into the specifics of how gamification might be able to help with behavior change, we need to look at what Mr. Fogg has to say about changing behavior. There are, of course, other researchers working on habit and behavior change. But I think Mr. Fogg has the easiest to understand and most usable of ideas. As an introduction, let’s listen to the man himself summarizing his work: a short video is available on this page (sorry, the video is not embeddable into this blog).

Mr. Fogg sees behavior change as habit formation. His lab has produced a wonderful  chart that  lists the different types of change by whether it involves starting a new behavior, stopping a current behavior, or increasing/reducing a current behavior. He also distinguishes the duration of the behavior change, whether it is to be temporary (dot), for a fixed period (span),  or lasting (path). For language teachers in Japan dealing with low-proficiency learners (in general, students at ‘lower-level’ schools tend to have poor study skills in addition to poor language proficiency), green span or green path behaviors are what we should be aiming at. Duh, you might say at this point. But wait, because the simplistic beauty of Mr. Fogg’s model starts now. For a behavior to change, 3 things have to be present: a trigger, the ability to do the behavior, and motivation. And the last two, motivation and ability, are trade-offs. That means if you have low amounts of ability, you need to have more motivation. If you have low amounts of motivation (which is usually the case for the learners in our target group), you need to make the behavior steps really small. According to Mr. Fogg, behaviors are always the result of sequences. But you need to think and plan them carefully to be sure they meet certain conditions. That is,  you need to have an appropriate  trigger while you target a doable behavior with sufficient motivation available. Here is another graph that visually represents this.

First, think carefully about the target behavior. Is it simple/easy enough? Do you have a trigger? Because you need one. In the classroom, triggers can be certain events. Set fixed activities in your routines that will act as triggers. One teacher I know has his students get out their dictionaries at the beginning of class for an activity that requires them. Like clockwork, the class starts and the students get out their dictionaries as the teacher writes the day’s three vocabulary items on the board. Target behavior: use dictionaries. Trigger: vocab activity at beginning of every class. Ability: getting out the dictionaries and looking up only three words is doable.  Motivation: the students want to improve at English and the teacher has convinced them that using dictionaries is important.

Think about the current motivation your learners have. Is the behavior in sync with the learners’ goals? If not, you’ll need smaller steps, like in the dictionary example above. Target behaviors in small steps (Mr. Fogg calls them tiny habits). You really can’t go wrong making your steps really really small. Once one is established, you can target a subsequent behavior. An established behavior can  be used as a trigger for another behavior. You can also go the other way and work on the motivation. Explain to learners why a behavior is important. Make the activity more desirable. Or make the behavior more attractive (fun, social, meaningful, etc.). But Mr. Fogg suggests focusing on ability and triggers. Keep in mind that although people will rarely do things they don’t like, it is sometimes the case that people come to like what they do, rather than do only the things they like.

Or leverage a context change. Changes of context are times when humans are more willing and able to lose existing habits or form new ones. So, plan your big changes from the beginning of the school year. Or if you are looking to establish some new behavior, such as pair or group work, reconfigure the classroom seating and move the desks.

Here is Mr. Fogg’s list of patterns for success. These points are well worth keeping in mind as you try to get learners to change behaviors.

“Help people do what they already want to do.”
“Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”
“Trigger the right sequence of baby steps.”
“Simple. Social. Fun.” (You must have at least two of these.)
“Harness the motivation wave to make future behavior easy.
“Simplicity matters more than motivation.”

Another presentation of his looks at common pitfalls of behavior change. I’ll embed it below for easier access.

 

Now that we have covered the theoretical ground, it’s  time to look at the actual application of gamification mechanics. That will be the topic of the next post.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs

 

 

 

English May Not Be the Right Choice for Everyone

A column in the Daily Yomiuri challenged me. It was by Mike Guest, who writes the Indirectly Speaking column once a month or so. He can also be found writing regularly at ELTNews.com. And I am an admirer of his work and regularly nod my head in agreement. But this one hit something of a nerve. You see, I work training high school teachers. But it is not fear for my job that is behind this post. Here’s the crux of what he said:

“So what do I suggest? I suggest a culling, a streamlining of the system. People who want to study English can and should, but it should not be a national mandate. Those entering fields in which English communication will be necessary or advantageous should. This will mean better motivation, more goal-directed teaching and learning, and better teachers–both Japanese and non-Japanese–since the subject will no longer be so monolithic and all-encompassing, but specialized and localized.”

While there are some things I agree with in the article, I think Mr. Guest is wrong–flatout wrong–in the approach he is suggesting for English education. It is a nice idea, to teach English only to the kids who want/need it. But we don’t know who those kids are. And they don’t either. In my many years in Japan, I have taught thousands of students. I am regularly surprised to find out which of my “unmotivated” students are now working abroad, married to non-Japanese, or using English regularly for some purpose I never imagined. It is not a matter of preparing a few students to go abroad to sell Toyotas anymore. That was 1968. It is a matter of being connected in the world so that you can take advantage of opportunities (information, contacts, needs, trends, etc.) as they arise, when/however they arise. That’s true for Toyota and it’s increasingly true for Taro. For example, one of the biggest groups of people in Japan being thrust into foreign contexts recently are young technicians, often graduates of industrial high schools. Their English education simply is not preparing them for that. They (and their teachers) bought into the idea that they would never really need English, and suddenly they have to try to get dinner, get along with co-workers, learn and explain things, avoid getting ripped off, or try to hook up or find a partner, all in English, at least at first. Do you know how many Japanese are going to live abroad in the future? I don’t either, but the average percentage of foreign-born people in advanced countries is 8% (as of 2009) according to this Economist article that might change your mind on “internationalization.” That means a lot of Japanese living abroad, and a lot of non-Japanese coming to Japan. And let’s not forget trips for business or pleasure. Or the Internet, where Japanese, like anyone else, can join communities of like minded individuals to explore the niches and crannies of unique interests.

As an English speaker, I often forget to thank my lucky stars for the enormous advantage I have because of English. Oh, the places I can go! Oh the people I can meet and then actually talk to, instead of just smiling politely. For Japanese native speakers, and I mean no disrespect to the people or the wonderful language, there is simply nothing similar. You may not find every sign, or menu, or whatever written  in two languages around the world, but if you see one, chances are one of the languages is English. That is simply not the case for Japanese. Try, oh go ahead and try, to find a place in the world where not one person speaks any English. It’s actually hard. But for most places outside of Japan, that is normal for Japanese. So, sorry, but for Japanese people, English is an important window to the world, it’s a Star Trek transporter, it’s a Lingua Franca, a common currency, a skill among skills.

And nobody knows which particular individuals are going to need it, more or less. It’s not fair, and technology is making it easier, that’s true, but that’s the way it is. So, sorry, but English has to be a “national mandate.” But it is at present a shameful national mandate, I agree. I have observed dozens of high school lessons. What is happening now is about as far away from language learning as chemistry is from food preparation. And it is often dreadfully boring. We can point to multiple culprits, but the situation is what it is, and the place to improve it is the classroom. Can it be improved? Absolutely! And right now, all across the country, there are dedicated teachers conducting wonderful lessons and bringing about real change. I’ve met a some of them and I can tell you that change is coming. But it will have to come from both the bottom and the top. And it will take time and effort. You don’t change an educational culture quickly. It’ll happen teacher by teacher, class by class, school by school. Try to find an English teacher who can’t speak English. They used to be common. They’re not anymore. In the future we might just as well ask about how hard it is to find a motivating teacher who puts her learners on the path to competency and autonomy.

As for the suggestion of taking English off the Center Exam, I believe there may be a short-term benefit and a long-term problem with this. My own view is we should tread carefully. The culture of education in Japan in 2013 features a huge emphasis on examinations. Some of the backwash from this is negative, to be sure, but some is positive. Implementing policy to get better backwash rather than no backwash may be a better strategy. I don’t know. And it really is a bigger policy issue that needs to be considered like a single chess move, by thinking several moves into the future.

 

EFL Gamification 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

 

I am interested in gamification. That is not to say I buy into everything that gets labelled as such. Gamification is a concept being applied scattershot  recently in both marketing and education  in the hopes of making something more marketable, attractive, palatable. But gamification is NOT a set of techniques that can be used in any situation to add a little coercion or motivate customers or learners. In a recent Mind/Shift blog post on using games for education, gamification gets this rather abrupt dismissal:

Gamification is the use of game-based elements or game mechanics to drive user engagement and actions in non-game contexts. In gamification, the game mechanics are divorced from the content being taught and are instead added in the form of some sort of reward element after completion of an activity. For example, a short-form math game that involves answering math questions where correct answers are followed by a badge or the reward of playing a “dunk the clown” game would be called gamification. David Dockterman, Ed.D., Chief Architect, Learning Sciences with Tom Snyder Productions/Scholastic is concerned about this use of game mechanics, stating “Gamification can begin to undermine a kid’s desire to learn” (CS4Ed interview, March, 2012).

Read that part in red again. I’m afraid it’s true sometimes.  But not always. The effectiveness or lack thereof (or even detrimental impact) of gamification lies in the approach that it becomes part of when deployed. The key is educational design, and crucial to that is feedback, but I am getting ahead of myself. As  a recent participant in Coursera.org’s Gamification course who has to give a few presentations on gamification in EFL in Japan this year, I have an obvious interest in finding out just what it can do for education. So for the next few posts, I plan to look into different aspects of gamification and language education. First up is motivation. Because that is really the reason gamification exists at all.

 

Motivation is a topic I have written on many times–here in describing the general problem of motivation by English language learners in Japan, and here describing what most teachers mean when they talk about motivation. The literature on motivation in ELT is not always that helpful because it focuses on issues of identity and tends to ignore the realities of the classroom and the role that engineered instructional environments and learning situations can have on forming motivation. I don’t want to reduce the importance of Mr. Dornyei’s work in any way, but with the teachers I work with, when they talk about motivation, they are talking about motivation problems that require behavior change. For that reason, I have found Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to be more functionally applicable. Essentially, it posits that humans are motivated by needs to be competent at things, have autonomy, and be part of a group/society/meaningful unit.

Recently, on Julie Dirksen’s blog by way of Amy Jo Kim (instructional designer and game designer respectively) I found out about Chris Hecker’s 2010 presentation entitled Achievements Considered Harmful?. He is, by the way, another game designer. You can watch it here, (or just skim the page for the most relevant bits). If you have an interest in motivation, it is well worth your time because he grapples with the problem of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards. You see, activities are intrinsically motivating if they help you fulfill your inherent desire for personal growth by achieving some kind of competence (“I am good, getting better, mastering this”); if they help learners feel they are working towards their own set of goals with some amount of autonomy (“I am in control and doing things that match my values”); and if they contribute to the sense of relatedness that learners feel by being part of a group, or some kind of purposeful movement  larger than themselves (“I am a part of something here that I think is kind of cool or important”). Some creative and engaging activities just do this naturally. Dan Pink, in his famous TED talk promoting his book Drive, both explains this nicely and makes a pretty strong case for it. Intrinsic motivation springs from within when people are engaged in work/study/activities that align with their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. It is  powerful,  wonderful, and  fragile, and you really really want it to grow in your learners. Though you have some ways to cultivate it, intrinsic motivation does not come about as a result of tool kit rewards that you can just pull out. It emerges as a result of the learner’s experience–from the teacher’s success in designing interactions and engineering instructional environments. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand is all the trifling enticements and punishments that are used to make subjects do what they are told to do: salaries, grades, threats of prison time, as well as points, badges, leaderboards, and other tools of gamification. Amy Jo Kim has a nice slide from  great presentation she made in 2011, illustrating the two groups in the world of games (and gamification).

Everyone agrees that improving intrinsic motivation is the name of the game in education. Indeed, overt use of extrinsic rewards can actually damage intrinsic motivation when the tasks are interesting or require creativity!  That is Mr. Dockterman’s point above. But it is not true that the presence of extrinsic rewards necessarily kills intrinsic motivation. You can still enjoy your job even though you are being paid, and you can still get seriously interested in an assignment even though it will eventually result in a grade.  Here is what Mr. Hecker says the research definitely says (and he has obviously waded through a lot of it) about  rewards when people are engaged in activities that are interesting:

  1. Tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
  2. Verbal, unexpected, informational feedbackincreases free-choice and self-reported intrinsic motivation.

So cheap rewards such as points or prizes will not work only on their own when the tasks should be interesting and engaging as they are. And you’d be dumb to try. But real gamification lies not in the scattershot application of points (or badges, or whatever) but in the design of a learning experience that engages (and delights!) learners and helps them to see where they are going and how they are doing at any one time (feedback). So a better way to define gamification–effective gamification–is that it is the use of game mechanics and game elements to drive engagement and provide meaningful feedback for learners when it is appropriate to do so.

The above paragraph and most of the literature on this subject make a very important distinction regarding the nature of the task learners are engaged in: is it interesting (requires creativity) or is it boring and repetitive? For the former, you can do real damage by breaking out your extrinsic rewards. For the latter, well, maybe a game of dunk the clown could come in handy. Extrinsic rewards “…can encourage positive behavior and outcomes when one is dealing with dull, repetitive, and/or tedious activities”  says Mr. Werback in For the Win (pg. 62). And yes, extrinsic rewards can actually help to nudge people toward more intrinsic motivation. They can help a learner to feel progress toward competency, for example. Or they can make a playful social environment that learners can feel part of. The crucial point for learners like EFL students is to tie gamification to feedback. That is, make learning clear (clear assessment of where the learner is and needs to go; and clear, effective advice on how to get there). Clear formative feedback is essential, and if it can be done in a way that is fun (and leads to improvements in competency, autonomy, and relatedness), then we are well on our way to having a humming learning system in place. As an instructor, it is best to think in terms of feedback loops for our target behaviors (skills, use of strategies, etc.). Good loops make progress clear and they do in a way that is delightful. So we might even better describe gamification as the delightification of feedback. Of course, if your lessons are a series of tedious slogs, then the deployment of extrinsic rewards will eventually flounder and fail. But to get over the tedious bits, gamification can help. Mr. Werbach has three important lessons or guidelines for use of extrinsic rewards:

  1. Unexpected, informational feedback increases autonomy and self-reported intrinsic motivation
  2. Users like to get reinforcement about how they are doing
  3. Users will regulate their own behavior based on which metrics are provided to them

If you have points or badges or leaderboards, you have to have them for something. It is the choice of those categories and the setting of manageable (attainable yet meaningful) steps that are perhaps the biggest part of the teacher’s job with gamification in education. Lee Sheldon, in The Multiplayer Classroom states that “game design, at it’s heart, is deciding what the player can do.” That means both what and how much. And that is true for formative feedback as well. Notice also how both Mr. Werback and Mr Hecker mention verbal, unexpected feedback. This gives us a good idea of what we should be doing with our learners while they are learning. It is not enough to throw gamification tricks or treats at them. Engagement in their learning by the instructor is essential. Focus on feedback. Focus on learning. And try to have some fun!

In this EFL gamification series:

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs