EFL Gamification 8: HabitRPG and Other Web-based Services

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Gameful design is something that is perhaps better learned from experience than from PPT slides or blog posts. When we start an explanation with motivation (as I did here) or habits (as I did here), it is hard to understand what gameful design should “look like” when it is deployed. One thing in particular, the use of narrative, needs to be seen to be understood. In another earlier post (here), I described what was for me a kind of epiphenal moment in my quest to understand how gameful learning  can help with motivation and learning. It came when I was reading Jane McGonigal’s book. After I read that, I felt like I finally had a workable example of the power of narrative in creating a game from something else entirely. I called the post Mechanics because for me the process of laying a narrative onto a something that would become a game equaled the process of “gamification.” Points and badges are often thought of as the mechanics of gamification, but if we think about making something more gamelike–that is playful, meaningful, delightful–then points and badges are really part of the  details that need to be worked out later. It is the narrative structure, in combination with a workable feedback system (here’s where your points and badges come in) that makes the experience meaningfully gamelike.

In order to see this idea of applying a narrative onto something different, I offer for your consideration today a few examples. You can try them out with your friends or family or by yourself to see how they feel. Of course, it is not the same as laying a narrative on top of an EFL class, but you’ll get an idea of what it is like to work toward your goals within the details of a story. All of these sites require registration and regular participation, so make sure you have the time and the stomach for a month of “play.” And notice first of all how each of these sites works on the same basic idea–nudging you to complete YOUR goals.

HabitRPG is a site to help you to establish positive habits for life, for work, and for study. It’s really a flexible task and time management tool that has a gamelike design. You use the system by deciding your daily routines and one-time to-dos. You also set your rewards and monitor your habits. It sounds a little confusing, but it is actually a fairly easy interface. The system is incredibly flexible and could be used as easily with training learning strategies as with developing good diet routines. Here is a blog article by Nik Peachey detailing how to use it. It includes his assessment of the tool.

Similar to HabitRPG but with more of a focus on healthy eating and living is Health Month. It uses a simple, friendly user interface at which you play turns (set goals and assess yourself). They also nudge you regularly with e-mail messages. It’s a nice system that works on a monthly basis; but it’s not really focused on study goals, and not really flexible beyond its health and lifestyle focus. Within those areas, however, it is quite a nice experience. I tried it to help me diet and reduce my internet time.

For more of a fitness emphasis, try Fitocracy. Its purpose is fitness motivation and it uses a combination of awareness-raising, goal-setting, habit-forming, and social media to get you to understand fitness better, plan your own fitness routines, and network or challenge other Fitocraccy players. It works for all levels of fitness they say, but unless you are fairly familiar with some exercises and terminology, you may find it a little difficult to understand what you should do. Plus the system is quite large with many functions. I found it a little  hard just to get orientated. But if you are serious about fitness, you will probably find this site meets your needs.

Nextup is Chore Wars. Chore Wars is designed for families or couples or any people  living together who find it hard to get the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning done regularly. The solution? Gamification. Each person chooses his/her chores and competes with others in completing more of them more efficiently. The narrative, as the name suggests is a World of Warcraft / Dungeons and Dragons world of adventures (chores) and quests (chores again). As you complete chores, your elf or wizard or dwarf earns XPs (experience points). If you are really using the system well,  you can introduce your own creatively-named rewards into the play.

But let’s not forget the world of education. World of Classcraft is a site offering the service of listing and tracking your class within a World of Warcraft / Dungeons and Dragons theme. According to their website, they are “an educational augmented-reality multiplayer role-playing game.” You really have to be familiar with the play and progression in World of Warcraft to understand what you have to do here. For that reason alone, it may be a little daunting. Recently, they tried (unsuccessfully) gain funding for a free web-based version of the game. If you just want to check it out, there is a nice video at the site showing how a teacher (actually the game developer) uses it in his physics classes.

And finally, in one of the more unusual (and looser) applications of gamification for learning, there is the Teacher Development game. It is a loose collection of online videos and tutorials showing how to teach EFL better. You can find it here.

And that’s it. If you really want to understand gamified learning, trying out any one of these sites can help you learn a little. As you play, however, keep thinking about what works and doesn’t work for you. Is the system accessible? What is the narrative? Does it make any difference? And finally, most importantly: Does the system make it easy reach your goals? How exactly does it do this?

This post is just one of a series of posts on gamification. The others are here:

  1. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards
  2. Triggers, Ability, and Motivation
  3. Mechanics
  4. The Downside and How to Avoid It
  5. The Whole Hog?
  6. ARGs
  7. Required Reading

 

Image fragment from Les Portes by Paul Evans http://unsplash.s3.amazonaws.com/batch%208/les-portes.jpg

 

 

 

Fine-tuning Your Classroom Skills: Doug Lemov Catalogs How to Teach Like a Champion

Teach Like a Champion Book Cover

Hey! EFL teachers in Japan! No disrespect, but you probably need this book.  If you  are a native speaker EFL teacher in a country where there is more interest  than accomplishment in learning English, you probably need this book. You might be one of the few educated, trained, and disciplined among us, but chances are, you are not. More likely, you belong to the majority– by and large and by most accounts, a ragtag bunch of misfitsMost of us fell into this profession and were not trained as teachers exactly; I mean, not in the sense of teachers who went to teachers college, studied theory and techniques, did practicums, and got jobs in school systems run by school boards, with standards, supervisors, paperwork, and training. Many of us were waiters, travelers, English majors, or other such mostly unemployables who began teaching EFL and then learned how to do it in a combination of certificate courses, graduate courses, conferences, and keeping our eyes open on the job. Or you may be a Japanese teacher of English as a foreign language, teaching in senior or junior high school after gaining a license that required only a few extra undergraduate courses, completion of a two or three-week placement at your old school, and passing the tests for the prefecture you are now employed by. You know your basic grammar, have a fairly good vocabulary, and are pretty confident that with a little prep time can explain anything between the covers of a textbook. But you have gaps in your knowledge of English usage and classroom management almost as impressive as the unwarranted overconfidence your native English-speaking colleagues bring with them into your school, so full or self-righteousness and irresponsibility. Both you groups of teachers would benefit from this book because not only were you never trained specifically for classroom and learning management, a lot has been learned about teaching and managing classes since you were at school. There is now a good mass of knowledge and techniques that I bet you never took a course in and most likely are unaware of. 

This book is not aimed at EFL teachers, not even a little. But it will tell you, and show you, how to do things with your students that will get them to pay more attention, learn more deeply, and make the most of the time you are now probably doing a good job of frittering largely away. This book by itself will not solve your problems, and you’ll likely find it pushes more regimentation and rigor than either  you or your students need, but man ‘o man there is a lot to be learned here. 49 techniques, roughly half of which you can adapt very nicely for an EFL classroom, are presented by Mr. Lemov. He gleaned them from observing teachers who were getting better-than-expected results in schools whose demographics made those results look almost miraculous. These are techniques that took chunks of a doomed demographic and put them on the Path to College. Some of them are techniques you might indeed be using. But I have managed enough native-English speaking teachers and observed enough Japanese teachers of English in high schools that I can say with quite a bit of certainty, you (and your students!) will benefit from this book. Mr. Lemov provides us with clear explanations, warnings against pitfalls, and short illustrative video clips to make the points easy to understand. Putting them to use will be more difficult, but not impossible, as most of the techniques require only slight adjustments in timing or language. But it is those small changes that can make a huge difference. Techniques such as Cold Calling (picking the student after you have asked the question), Pepper (asking a rapid sequence of questions as review), and concepts such as Ratio (getting students to do more of the thinking) and At Bats (maximizing practice opportunities) can transform the one-way slog of some English classes or the whimsical frivolity of others into real learning environments.

The book has a website. Go there first and look around.  http://teachlikeachampion.com/ Learn a little about Uncommon Schools or Mr. Lemov himself and what he does. Watch some of the videos and see the control and confidence and learning on display. I am quite certain you will begin to see where you may be falling short now. These are schools and teachers who refused to let demographics get in the way of success, who challenge their learners to perform at a higher level, and demand their attention and effort. If you don’t know how to get to that point with your learners, then you probably need this book. It is not a panacea, however, and you will still need to adapt the ideas to fit your subject and classes. In general, the techniques are very cognitive and very behaviorist and so Japanese teachers of English will likely find them more immediately appealing as they will mesh more nicely with current practices. Teachers would do well to not forget the affective and emotional when planning lessons, something Mr. Lemov spends too little time on (from a language teacher’s perspective). But this book can give you a lot of help learning and improving techniques you probably were never exposed to in your education and your own training. It can help you make whatever you are doing more efficient and more effective.

 

EFL Gamification 7: Required Reading

With a few gamification/gameful design posts and much of what I want to say out of the way,  I thought it might be a good time right now to offer a reading list. If you are interested in games and learning and you are just pulling in the occasional article or presentation from your PLE, you are likely getting your info on gamification in less-than-comprehensive bits…and bits…and…bits.  It takes some sifting to see if you get anything good and useful, and that sifting requires a little knowledge and/or experience.  For that reason, and to give yourself a little thinking time, I recommend you try reading a few books. The books mentioned below each contain a diverse range of combinations of theory and examples. Reading through them is like a taking hot air balloon trip over unfamiliar territory, or just climbing up to a high place to get the lay of the land. That said, unfortunately there is no one book that’ll do this completely; you’ll need to read a couple at least. The downside is that books, even the most recent ones, are dated. These are the best of recent books on the topic, but the ideas within them stretch back a decade in some cases. You’ll need to keep trawling your PLE for recent developments. I recommend following a few key people: Nicole Lazzaro, Amy Jo Kim, Gabe Zichermann, and Sebastian Deterding.

I’m working from a few assumptions here: you are a classroom teacher; you work with large classes that often display less than optimal motivation; you have searched online and found lots of short blog articles (particularly business-focused ones) with lots of opinions but not much that is useful for you or your learners; you are interested but skeptical. If this is a reasonably accurate description of you, you’ll likely find my recommendations helpful.

Reality Is Broken (book cover)

One of the things I’ve noticed is that you really ought to try to avoid the term/idea “gamification” and think instead of gameful design or something like that. If that distinction doesn’t mean anything to you yet, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken is a good way to learn that it is more than just the choice of term that matters. This book will help you make that important change in perspective. She does a great job explaining what games are and why and how they are effective for enjoyment and change. Part 1  of the book is really great–very passionate, very eye-opening, and very clear. She is really does a fine job explaining  intrinsic rewards, unpacking what she sees as the four major categories: the need for satisfying work, how success must be possible, the social environment of our activities, and the craving we all have for higher meaning. She shows how games provide these things and in the process helps you understand how important it is to make use of these things in just about any situation. She challenges your assumptions with arguments that are both passionate and sensible, if a little revolutionary in perspective. As the chapters continue, she covers happiness and her ideas for how games can be a force for good in the world. She does get a little weird in places and you will likely see her more as a zealot than a voice of balanced pedagogy by the time you reach the end. But don’t skip this book. You might not know it, but you need to understand the mindset of gamers/game designers, and Ms. McGonigal is a great guide.

 

Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching (book cover)

Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching is a rather ambitious little academic book edited by Nicola Whitton and Alex Moseley. It is ambitious in that it tries to do many things at the same time: provide rationale for the greater use of games in education; show how games can be designed and deployed; provide a theoretical framework for the evaluation of games for educations; etc. Some of these are done better than others and one might question the reasoning behind the inclusion of a couple of chapters. However, the chapters entitled “Good Game Design Is Good Learning Design” and “Narrative: Let Me Tell You a Story” are particularly good and helpful for teachers who want to know more about what games offer to education. Also, the several sections dealing with alternative reality games (ARGs) really help you to see the the pedagogy and design of such activities. The many examples included and the authors’ experience with campus-wide ARGs make these parts of the book very interesting and practically useful if you would like to try it yourself. Oddly, despite the focus on education, there is little attention to using games for individual classrooms. If you are looking for some ideas to bring into your own classes here, you’ll find a few, but you’ll still need to do the specific designing and construction work yourself. One of the strong points of this book is that points are backed up with citations and references to academic papers. The authors are researchers / practitioners and they manage a good balance between theoretical support and practice. It might seem seem strange to praise a book for including references, but academic literature reviews are something the other authors on this list didn’t  seem to worry too much about.

 

The Mulltiplayer Classroom (book cover)

The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game by Lee Sheldon is what it says it is. If you are looking to set up your course as a game, this is the book for you. See my post on this topic for more details. One of the take-aways from this book is that trying to do so will require a serious re-thinking of how you organize content and a lot of tweaking to get it right for your group of learners. The book is particularly aimed at college teachers who have more control over their curriculum, but various high school and other teachers who have changed their courses into games are also presented as case studies.

 

For the Win (book cover)

For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter might seem a strange choice for a list of gamification books for education, but it is included here because it is a succinct overview that can get you up to speed on the topic. The focus is on how gamification can be used for businesses with a web presence especially, but the Mr. Werbach, in addition to designing and delivering one of the first courses on gamification and another that is available as a MOOC from Coursera.org, does a good job introducing the genre, explaining motivation, the elements of games, and the steps for deploying gamification. There are thousands of  businesses trying really hard to make their websites and businesses more fun, and Mr. Werbach knows a lot about them. Understanding their challenges and how they are meeting them helps in conceptualizing the somewhat parallel problem schools have with engaging students. But that’s about as far as it’ll get you. Recently, Mr. Werbach was asked to recommend a short, humorous video that gives a nice introduction to gamification. This one from PennyArcade is what he suggested.

 

Seductive Interaction Design (book cover)

 

Seductive Interaction Design by Stephen Anderson is a book that will help you understand gameful design. The sub-title, Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences gives you a better idea of what is in this book but Mr. Anderson is a unique thinker with an interesting perspective. The book is not at all about education, it is not even really much about games or gamification; rather it is a book on user experience design from someone who is an expert in web interface design. So why would you want to read it? Well, education begins with getting attention and trust and Mr. Anderson has a lot to say on those topics.

 

The Art of Game Design (book cover)

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell comes highly recommended. Sebastian Deterding, for example, says it is the one to read (along with A Well-Played Game by Bernard De Koven, an old book that is soon to be re-released in an updated version). Mr. Schell, of Carnagie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, and of The International Game Developer’s Association, has both the industry experience (he designed Toontown Online for Disney, for example) and the academic position to be taken very seriously. This book, at more than 500 pages, requires a serious investment in time.  It is theoretical, it is practical, and it will help you to see things differently through different lenses.

 

Embedded Formative Assessment (book cover)

Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam is a book that is not at all about gameful design, and yet what is contained here is very important if you are interested in making learning happen. “Fun is just another word for learning,” said game design guru Raph Koster. And learning happens with feedback–lots of it, in a social context, from peers, teachers, and the learner herself. This book will explain why. This book will sell you on the need for feedback in education. This importance of feedback, for learning, for fun, is at the heart of gameful design. That, and the playfulness that Mr. Anderson talks about (see above). Without good feedback, games become an end unto themselves; the feedback only helps the learner get better at the game. In educational game design, the trick is to use the game to build knowledge or develop skills that go beyond the game. Mr. Wiliam will help to keep your one foot planted squarely in pedagogy. And some of his ideas for providing feedback, you’ll notice if you’re looking through your ludic lens, are pure gamification.

 

 

 

 

Brain-friendly Teaching in Practice: Nick Bilbrough Introduces Memory Activities for Language Learning

Memory, or rather its quirks and limitations, in language education is sometimes like the weather in that old joke: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Yet memory limitations affect every aspect of what we as teachers and programs are trying to do. In the last few years, “brain-friendly” teaching, “brain-targeted” teaching and “neuroscience-informed” teaching have all been tossed around. In this blog, I’ve covered several books that deal with this (here, here, and here, for example). There are programs and resource sites like the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author  David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom.  But none of these are by or for language teachers specifically. I’m sure there are  teachers who putting all this new knowledge to good practical use in the classroom, and I’m equally sure that much of what is being sold as “brain friendly” is what has always been done by good teachers anyway. But if you visit a lot of language classrooms, you might be amazed at how brain unfriendly some are.

In my job as a teacher trainer, I just don’t see all that many approaches and activities that show an appreciation for the finickiness of human memory. There are, as I see it, two possible reasons for this. One–a failure to take note of the mountain of research and how it sometimes screams out the need for pedagogical change–I would like to lay squarely at the feet of language teachers and language teaching programs. The other–a general lack of published materials and accepted classroom techniques–has and continues to be a problem; but Nick Bilbrough’s 2011 book Memory Activities for Classroom Learning begins to correct this problem. Much of what has worked in language classrooms over the years has done so because it has been sensitive to the cognitive limitations of learners and has leveraged the affective and social elements of content and classrooms. What is needed is a new lens, a new way of interpreting  successful activities that will inform the selection of activities in a task sequence or syllabus. That’s what this book does.

 

Memory research has advanced greatly in the past few years and Mr. Bilbrough does a good job of summing up and presenting what you need to know in short executive summaries at the beginning of each unit. If you don’t know why Ebbinghaus, or Craik & Lockhart, or Sweller are important for  your job, or  if the terms phonological loop, visio-spatial sketchpad, and episodic buffer don’t mean much to you, this book will provide a good introduction. And if you are familiar with all these, you’ll find the way Mr. Bilbrough turns this theory into actual classroom activities very interesting. It is my belief that even if you don’t use any of the ready-made activities directly from the book (most of which are very well-chosen by the way), your perspective on your own approach in your classes will change. Because once we start to think of why some things are better held in working memory or why some things are more likely to be stored in long-term memory, we’ll naturally feel the need to adjust our explanations, our pace and timing and selection of activities. Learners and teachers both want variety in lessons; but they both also want to see learning happening. This book will help you understand and apply some ideas for making things easier for learners to remember, which means easier to learn.

I think Mr. Bilbrough has done a very nice job identifying the key points connected to memory and how it affects the learner and the classroom. If you look at his unit headings, I think you will agree. There is enough flexibility here in the topics covered to meet the needs of teachers who are wedded to textbooks and those who use a more Dogme-ish approach.

  1. Mental Stretching
  2. Making Language Memorable
  3. Retrieving
  4. Repeating and Reactivating
  5. Memory Techniques and Mnemonics
  6. Learning By Heart
  7. Memory Games

This book is a nice start. I think that Cambridge may want to revisit many of the wonderful old books in the Handbooks for Language Teachers series and reorganize some of the content in line with more recent research and pedagogy. Books on affect , arts integration, skill mastery and transfer,  learning environments, challenge, fun, formative assessment, etc. are all needed. But for the time being, Memory Activities for Language Learning is a step in the right direction. And if I may be permitted to expand on my suggestion a little, a little more attention to relevant research would be a good idea, I think. One problem with this book is its sporadic use of citations. Some areas provide good references, others are devoid of references, and at least one reference is kind of puzzling. I love Chip and Dan Heath’s books, but calling them “educational psychologists” gives them more academic gravitas than they warrant. Teachers who are interested in finding out more about research and findings in memory will get precious little help from this volume beyond those good unit introductions to the basics, I’m afraid. The choice of online resources is also disappointingly limited.

But these criticisms are very minor. I highly recommend this book. Every language teacher should read the chapter intros and browse through the extensive list of suggested activities.

A year ago I wrote this post on working memory that you may find interesting if you are looking to further explore the topic of memory and learning.

 

EFL Gamification 6: ARGs

This is the 6th post in a series exploring the use of gamification (to use the buzzword) or gameful design (to more accurately represent my intentions) in the teaching of English as a foreign language, particularly in secondary school settings. Earlier posts  dealt with (1) motivation, (2) habits, (3) mechanics, (4) pitfalls and misunderstandings, and (5) turning your course into a game. This post will look at ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, and for a definition I’d like to turn to Whitton & Moseley from their 2012 book, Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching, the best resource I’ve found for designing this type of game activity:

“ARGs use narrative, community and problem-solving in a game that unfolds over weeks and months, combining the real and virtual worlds. The players work together to solve the puzzles and develop the story themselves through [the interaction with and/or] the creation of artifacts, both digital and real world, and the mythologies that surround the game” (pg. 143).

ARGs are often interactive narratives in the form of a mystery/treasure hunt (see National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code if you are somehow unfamiliar with the genre) and players work together to unravel  clues or collect items. The AR part is that the story is just a story, while the clues are placed in the real world in the form of e-mails, websites, letters, maps, audio tapes, graffiti, or just about anything that can convey information. In the book, Ms. Whitton discusses what ARGs are and  how to set one up, and mentions several examples. She  describes her involvement with the ARGOSI project, the design and creation of an ARG at a UK university. The purpose was to help new students get used to an unfamiliar new city, the campus, and the library system. In terms of process, they first decided on the learning outcomes they wanted to aim for and considered the limitations they had to work with (time, money, etc.); then they drew up the initial concept for the game and sketched out a narrative; next they designed the challenges (puzzles) and created the artifacts (letters, maps, etc.). In some ways, the process is similar to Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter (covered in this earlier post–you’ll need to scroll down a little). Both are organized by narrative. If you have a gripping story, the rest should flow along. For SuperBetter, the story was personal recovery. It is obviously important to the player. For an ARG, the artifacts (and how they fit in the story) will probably be key.

And for language learning, the artifacts are what you’ll be directing your learners towards and so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions as you plan and create them:

  1. Are they intrinsically interesting? Do they have good ‘face validity’? Do they fit with your narrative?
  2. Are they accessible/doable for your learners in terms of level?
  3. Is feedback built into each task so learners know when they are successful?
  4. Are they in the right mode (reading, listening) for the skills you want learners to practice?
  5. Are they accessible to learners inside and outside of class (web-based, snail-mailed, copied)?
  6. Will interaction with them result in learning? How? And how will you know?
  7. Where will learners interact with artifacts? Will it be homework or group exploration and/or discussion in class?
If we think about the content we need students to learn, it shouldn’t be hard to design the artifacts. You can use textbook language (or even the textbook itself) for puzzles. You can make recordings on cassette tapes  to make clues seem quaint or dated (and so students need to use school players!), and you can create letters and websites using target language that students will need to read and re-read. The only limitations are your creativity and the amount of time you can dedicate to the project. For the sake of keeping appearances real, it will really help if you have a graphics designer or some graphic design skills yourself. But with a few tools (MS Word, for word processing and image processing, Audacity for sound recording and editing, WordPress.org, Edublogs.org or some other blogging service), you should be able to make most of the artifacts you want. Ms. Whitton’s team based their story on the blog of a fictional character. The other artifacts they made and used are available from the ARGOSI website (click the Resources tab). And you can see the blog and game itself at violaquest.org (if/when it is available again–it wasn’t at the time of writing). Other ARGs can also be found online and they may provide you with some ideas for creating your own. One similar to the ARGOSI project, Who Is Herring Hale?, is presented as a case study here. And another ARG, created to raise money for cancer research, can be found here. For something more language-focused, please take a look at the work of Paul Driver, an educational designer based in Portugal. At his website you can find information about his Spywalk game and other “location-based urban games.” There are links to academic presentations and articles and Youtube videos showing the game in action.

 

An important point to consider is learning outcomes. The ARGOSI project had a fairly short and straightforward list. The designers wanted the new students to learn a little more about Manchester and how to use the university library. As a language teacher, you’ll need to decide where to put your focus. ARGs are probably best for introducing learners to content or behaviors. In order to maintain the illusion, novelty and fun of the game, you can’t really add drills or require repetitions of behavior, though if you get the challenge level right, you can get learners to repeatedly interact with the text. In contrast with a game like SuperBetter which could be used to establish positive learning habits, an ARG might best be used to have learners explore resources and language. Of course, you could in your design of artifacts steer learners to all sorts of practice–intensive listening or reading, skimming or scanning, dealing with different accents or genres, etc.). How you design the artifacts and how learners will interact with them in the game are really crucial for pedagogic success. This is especially tricky given that you are trying to balance the narrative and fun with the pedagogy. It all comes down to design in the end. Without a clever story and appropriate-challenge-level artifacts, the game won’t fly; without pedagogically sound tasks with appropriate language level/skill focus/strategy focus, the game won’t teach.

 

To finish here, I’d like to add a few cautionary words (summarizing from Ms. Whitton’s unit on ARGs from her book). You really need to test out your games. Get feedback from everyone you can and plan on tweaking it for all eternity. You also need to have realistic expectations. All of the ARGs mentioned above–funded, backed by unis, and made by teams of talented professionals–were underutilized (to be polite). The Herring Hale game saw only 42 people play even one task and only 12 participants finish the game. Violaquest was similarly ignored en masse. As a teacher you have a captive audience. You’ll likely need to build participation into your course instead of relying on the Field of Dreams approach (if you build it, they will come). That said, one of the most successful (highly rated and attempted by the largest numbers of people) activities/tasks were those that were designed for action–planning and taking pictures and uploading them, for example. These tasks drew more interest, engaged more participants, and got them to collaborate and share more. Make sure you include some of these; don’t just make your ARG a series of puzzles. This may beg the question of whether you want to aim for more of a game with project-based elements or project-based activities with more game-like elements…

 

This leads to the final question of whether it is worth it. If done right, I guarantee  you’ll give your learners an education experience they’ll never forget. But it’ll cost ya. It will take a lot of planning and production time.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

 

Photo Credit: Detail from Look at the Map, or Play Some Checkers by Dr. Roy Winkelman,  at http://etc.usf.edu/clippix/picture/look-at-the-map-or-play-some-checkers.html

EFL Gamification 5: The Whole Hog?


This is the fifth post on gamification in EFL. The first was an attempt to understand motivation. The second considered changing specific behaviors. The third looked at mechanics, or the structure needed to make game-based learning engaging. The fourth was about some of the problems that can happen when gamification (especially just pointsification–the casual addition of points and other game elements) is put to use for manipulative purposes without enough attention to the underlying motivations and personalities of learners. This post will look at  turning your whole class into a game, or put more metaphorically, going the whole hog. There are really two ways of doing this. One is to design the course as a simulation. That means to create an immersive and realistic environment that requires learners to play a role. It  is a kind of extreme content-based form of learning and requires considerable flexibility with curriculum content and probably works best if you are aiming learners at a specific career. An example might be simulating planning and opening a store for business students. The instructor would then need to create all the websites, documents, etc. needed to support the simulation. The second, and the one I’ll focus on in this post, involves re-imagining the present content using a role-playing game structure. Traditional content (including textbooks and teaching modules) are used, but a wider variety of tasks and assignments are used. Game genre details and a  narrative structure are employed to make the progression through the material seem more like a game. This is more possible in institutional EFL courses, but still comes with a few conditions, the first being your familiarity with the genre of games.

Are you a gamer? I’m not talking about a little Angry Birds while commuting. I mean, have you spent huge blocks of your life immersed in World of Warcraft or Halo or The Sims or one of the many other places/pastimes where gamers spend time? Ask yourself how much you know about games and how much you really play. If you play 13 hours a week, you can consider yourself only an average member of the gamer sector of society; if you are up to 20 hours a week, you are officially “hard-core”; and if you can somehow cut your working, sleeping, and social hours down far enough to manage 45 hours a week, you are (by any account) “extreme”  (McGonigal, 2011, p. 3). Of course, you don’t need to be a fanatic about games to turn your classroom into a game, but you do need a certain amount of familiarity with the genre. You will need rather intimate knowledge of the structure and pacing of games–the way items are acquired, the way quests go down, the types of challenges, the way characters interact, the reward systems, etc.–and you will need to be able to retool your classroom and syllabus in a way that mimics this. You will need to know the lingo: guilds, raids, wipes, (point) farming, experience points (XP), etc.  Unsure of yourself? Back away from this idea now. But if you are a gamer and game lover, it is an option to embrace whole hoggedly. I speak as a researcher/observer here. I have not done this myself and so I will be only reporting on what I have read, pointing you to other sources and egging you to go out there and give it your best shot if you are interested.

There is, admittedly, something of a square peg in a round hole fit when taking the immersive multimedia world of a game and using it for a brick ‘n mortar face-to-face classroom. First of all, students are not sitting at computers interacting with audio/visual/narratives made by teams of talented professionals with an average production cost of $10 million (Whitton, 2010, in Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching). But if everyone is up for a bit of pretending, or suspension of disbelief, it can go well. Both Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken, and Lee Sheldon in The Multiplayer Classroom believe that game culture is second nature for the students in our classes. They have grown up playing games and are very comfortable with the way games engineer player progression. Ms. McGonigal states that the members of the gamer generation have more problems with reality–including most school work–because it lacks interesting challenge, the satisfying work, promise of success, and actionable feedback that is usually the norm. In other words, most courses aren’t engaging for many learners and they are likely to be up for a change. Or as Mr. Sheldon optimistically puts it, “we have yet to discover a class that cannot be taught in this way” [as a game] (pg. 9).

Mr. Sheldon’s book is the best resource I’ve been able to find for designing coursework as a game. Indeed, that is the sub-title of the book. In addition to being a trial-and-error account of his attempts to do this with his own university game design courses, the book contains several case studies by different teachers, the closest one among them to a high school language course was Denishia Buchanan’s  high school biology class. If you really have no idea where to begin, this book and in particular Ms. Buchanan’s case history, will help you out.

Mr. Sheldon will help you understand basic class organization and his unique (to the world of institutionalized education) approach to grading. By setting up coursework as a series of group and individual challenges and by creating a point system where students start with “0” and have to climb up through the levels towards their final grades, he manages (albeit not without a lot of tweaking) to make a grading system that mimics that of game progression.

In addition to just renaming groups as guilds and assignment as quests, both these teachers managed to make use of narrative to envelope the course and allowed learners considerable choice and flexibility. Narrative pulls the players/learners forward, making the course a story–their story; it creates in learners the desire to achieve hero goals; and it keeps everyone looking forward to what will happen next (Dansky, 2007). For this to work, however, there must be challenging but achievable things to do. Adoption of an inquiry-based curriculum that provides both variety and flexibility and lets the learners put their creativity to work seems a prerequisite. The balance, however,  of choice and rigorous requirements seems to be a tricky one to manage (Whitton, 2012).

And even if you get that right, you’ll need to spend some time designing to facilitate greater interaction. Though it is often touted as a great feature of online games, the  forming of groups to combine strengths to overcome particularly difficult challenges is not as common as game proponents might suggest. Ducheneaut (2006) studied World of Warcraft and found that players only begin to start grouping at the latter stages of game play at higher levels of the game, after they have found what they cannot do alone. That means that you can’t expect learners to collaborate on their own; you’ll have to design your activities so that group sharing is facilitated. Mr. Sheldon, for example, required both individual and group assignments during his courses, a practical way of ensuring both accountability and collaboration.

But finally, even if you get everything right, you still might not make everyone happy. There is considerable research that suggests that not all students like to experience courses as games, especially as one of those role-playing types of games that can can sound so hokey to the non-fan (Bekebrede et al., 2011).

Well, there you go. It’s obviously a challenge. It’ll take a lot of time to design all the quests and restructure the flow of lessons. But reading the stories of teachers who have done it can help you see the attraction of going whole hog with turning your course into a game. If you think you might like a little help with creating the structure and rule details, there is now a web service to help you. Called World of Classcraft, it provides roles, progressions, and rules of acquiring experience points or taking damage hit points.

And finally, you can read about an attempt to turn a language course into a large-scale alternate reality game (ARG) in Europe in Connolly, Stansfield, and Hainey (2011) linked below.

June 2013 Update: I recently came across a blog post from a teacher who had tried to gamify her class (as in turn the classroom experience into something closer to that of a game). Titled How I Turned My Classroom into a ‘Living Video Game’ and Saw Achievement Soar, the post explains (frustratingly) briefly how Ms Joli Barker, a second year elementary school teacher used technology (Skype, QR codes, GoAnimate, Voki, and Xtranormal), project-based learning narratives (?), and some  international exchanges to boost the scores of her students quite dramatically. She created a  basic structure of tasks and levels, challenges, and avatars, and re-tooled her assessment in a way that matches video games (similar to Mr. Sheldon). Without a little more detail, it is hard to picture what classes were really like, but the idea is very interesting and the results impressive.

Another June, 2013 update: Here is a geography class taught as a zombie survival game.

 

Bekebede, G., Warmelink, H., and Mayer, I. (2011). Reviewing the need for gaming in education to accommodate the net generation. Computers & Education, 57/2, 1521-1529.

Connolly, T. M., Stansfield, M., & Hainey, T. (2011). An alternate reality game for language learning: ARGuing for multilingual motivation. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1389-1415. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.01.009

Dansky, R. (2007). Introduction to game narrative. In C.M. Bateman (ed.) Game writing: Narrative skills for video games. Boston, MA: Charles River Media.

Whitton, N. (2012). Good game design is good learning design. In N. Whitton and A. Moseley (eds.) Using games to enhance learning and teaching. New York: Routledge.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 6: ARGs

 

Are MOOCs Disruptive? They Are Where I Live

A recent post in the Mind/Shift blog on the dismal completion rates of MOOCs ends with the question of whether or not they are disruptive. For education policy people and trend-watchers this seems to be an important question. But as the article states, and as a little consideration suggests, completion rates may not be the most important thing to think about. I think their very existence is indicative of their disruptive status. From the perspective of an EFL teacher trainer in Japan–and I’m guessing I can speak for many people throughout the world hungry for better-quality education in English–MOOCs are a very significant development.

People in North America (where I hail from) may not be conscious of a few things that we expat English teachers have been noticing for years. The world is getting smaller is one way to describe this major sea change over the last two decades. I can divide my 26 years in Japan into roughly two periods: the age before and after the Internet became available. Yes, before the Internet arrived, I had access to three English newspapers, a dozen or so magazines, lots of  movies, and even taped US television–all of which were precious resources we used to build lesson activities with authentic English. But now, everything seems to be available, only a few clicks away. The problem these days though, is that content is not organized and is often not accessible as it is for people from other cultures or with less-than-native English proficiency. In countries like Japan and China, there are large domestic populations and armies of translators and local businesses all too willing to repackage and charge locals for more comprehensive packages of content. This has often created an artificial barrier to access on of content on the web by individuals.

At the same time, however, it has become easier and more common to travel and study abroad and meet and interact with people from other cultures, both in foreign countries and in Japan. Inbound tourism, mostly a collection of international businessmen and their families twenty years ago, has become more frequent and more diverse. What I want to say is, everyone is aware that the world is getting smaller and will continue to do so in the future. They’re just not sure what to do about it exactly.

What does this have to do with MOOCs? Well, the availability and institutional trust value of schools offering MOOCs means a great deal to a great many people in various corners of the world. Anyone can go on the web and practice writing, but a comprehensive course offered, for example, by Duke University is a completely different thing. MOOCs give access to higher education opportunities that can be trusted to people who normally couldn’t or wouldn’t access such opportunities. And what about completion rates? I just don’t see that as an issue. Many people are trying this system out, taking a few cars for a test drive as it were. They are testing both the courses and themselves and getting a better idea of how the combination of these can work. Schools are becoming more sensitive to the needs of such learners, too. That writing course I mentioned is a relatively recent addition to the catalog and obviously aimed at entry-level students.

The signs I see mostly point to positive improvements. The screenshot above is from Coursera‘s website. More courses in more languages, and the option to get real credit for your work. I think we are moving into a new phase here. I regularly recommend courses to friends, colleagues, and students here in Japan, regardless of their nationality. Not taking advantage of these courses is criminally stupid in my opinion, even if that means just watching the videos and lurking around a little. There is much to learn in many different ways. If you haven’t tried it yet, please go to the website and take a look at the offerings. I guarantee you’ll find something that interests you.

Recently, some courses have begun to offer Signature Track registration. It’s a paid service that allows you to experience courses in a way that allows you to earn a verifiable certificate. It seems MOOCs are moving toward a more standard e-learning model. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but completely free MOOCs may be on their way out. Get ’em while you can.

May 1, 2013 Update: Here is a nice blog article with current stats and comments on MOOC users.

 

Photo credits: Top, screengrab from NASA video (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130331.html ); Bottom two from Coursera’s website (https://www.coursera.org/ )

EFL Gamification 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Not everyone is enamoured with gamification. Jane McGonigal wrote an entire book about using games as a force for good and avoided the term completely. And if you google “problems with gamification”  you’ll come across many pages encouraging caution or vitriol against gamification. And a lot of that is from some very smart people. Stephanie Morgan, a game designer like Ms McGonigal, actually called her Nov. 2012 presentation Gamification Sucks. She says what  a lot of critics say: most commercial application of gamification is based on a “shallow and cursory” understanding of the concept. Her talk covers scores and points, achievements such as badges, and avatars, and if you have 30 minutes, it is both entertaining and enlightening. Points (and other components) have to mean something, she says. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole reason we might want to use gamification in the first place.

A very nice example of this can be found at the website Progress Wars. Please go there now and click until you get it. You’ll see. Go on then. This website makes very effective use of gamification techniques to make the effective point that it can be pointedly pointless (in a bad way).

Sebastian Deterding is one of the smart people I mentioned in the first paragraph. He has a couple of presentations online that address this issue. I’ll embed them below. The first one explains the problem with most gamification really well–how it is often misunderstood and how it can often have negative side-effects. The second one looks at the same problem from a user experience design perspective and gives some suggestions for avoiding pitfalls and making experiences more playful or gameful.

For teachers, the essential problem comes down to two things, I believe. The first is that there exists already a system in place at schools for delivering content and assessing mastery. If you try to add gamification to this system, there is a strong possibility that you will be seen as just sugarcoating, in which case you can cheapen your curriculum or quickly bore your learners. The second problem is that games by definition require voluntary participation. I touched on this in the last post, but this is really the big challenge for the teacher-designer. This needs to be addressed in several ways.

One is to understand the power of the feeling of self-efficacy. Learning and progress are fun. Put another way, “kicking ass is more fun.” But there must be real achievement.

“The more we analyze and reverse-engineer passion, the more we see learning and growth as a key component. No, not a key–the key. The more knowledge and skill someone has, the more passionate they become, and the more passionate they become, the more they try to improve their knowledge and skills” (Kathy Sierra).

No teacher would disagree with this. And yet many teachers fail to help learners see evidence of achievement. Without clear goals and generous feedback–from peers, from the teacher, from the learning system–learners cannot see  improvement. And if they can’t see improvement then they can’t feel improvement, and  motivation will not be sustained. It’s as simple as that.  Games provide fantastic feedback and teachers must get used to making something like that part of the experience in the classroom. That means clear goals and regular formative feedback and meaningful markers of progress. Yet at the same time, there must be ample opportunities to try out new skills and knowledge in low-pressure (i.e., not tested) situations. A culture of trial and error until we see progress should be cultivated. Learners will put up with a certain amount of skill-building or knowledge collection if they see how it will help get them to their goals.

But while the key component is perceived growth, something has to happen to make growth happen. Revolutions don’t start when discontents reach thresholds of self-efficacy. Revolutions use the power and passion of ideas to bring people to the barricades, people who then build the skills they need. And that takes emotion. There needs to be more emotion, more delight, more meaning involved with moving through the material. My biggest shock from observing dozens of EFL classes in Japan was the total disregard for the emotional content of the textbooks. The teachers might as well have been teaching with phone books. Now, I have many problems with the EFL textbooks in use here, but the quality of the stories used is not one of them. These stories and the characters in them can be mined for empathetic meaning. But that is not all. The course itself becomes a narrative (as I covered in the Part 3). The learners are the heroes. The design of the syllabus,  the importance of the goal,  the journey, and the group–all of these can contribute to the emotional content of a learning experience.  Emotional engagement must be there. So the key to teaching is to take  neutral learners and make them care and work enough to see themselves grow in power. And then keep this going  as long as possible with further challenges, further success, and further social support. But if that were easy, it would certainly be more common than it is now. The problem is the boring bits. And maybe games can give us some ides for how to do this better.

Games are not always non-stop action. Resource farming is a common feature of games. You undertake some sort of mostly mindless repetitive activity with the knowledge that you are growing or acquiring resources/skills/information that will help you ramp up, level up, or otherwise become more powerful in the future. Take a look at Plants vs. Zombie’s zen garden.

You just collect plants, starting with only one or two, very slowly adding more.  And then you water, fertilize, and provide other care for them. You water one and the others want water. You have to repeat the process. Then you have to fertilize some. Then more. Then you have to go and buy more fertilizer and do it again. The plants generate money, but your first few little plants bring in so little that you wonder whether it is worth the effort. It’s very, very close to a production line job or one of those busywork assignments some teachers are so fond of. It’s boring but the plants are cute, and in the beginning you go along with it as you try to suss out the purpose.  The plants generate money, you learn, but you have to collect it, which also takes up some of your time. Eventually, however, they start generating real money and you learn that you can use that money to buy cool new super plants or unlock certain special games. So eventually you learn that this busywork contributes to a better game experience–better performance at higher levels. But there is a hump that needs to be overcome. The same is true of a lot of EFL content, particularly vocabulary. To kick ass you need to know a lot of it. But it takes time to explore the elaboration of word information, and it takes time to perform the frequent rehearsals that acquisition requires (Laufer, 2009).. And I think students will come over that hump with you if they can see the purpose in it, if they can see how their power increases.

At first glance, it seems strange that the game contains anything as slow as the zen garden. Think about it: the game shamelessly includes a an activity that at first disengages you from the main play and then forces you to complete a series of tasks that are about as fun as washing windows, despite the humorous narrator and cute little plants. And it does this on purpose! I think it’s because the designers know that players won’t respect leveling up unless it comes with some skill improvement or some work. And the same is true of learners. They’ll accept the boring bits if they promise of rewards is real. But they’ll need some help–a clear goal, very, very  clear feedback, a dash of emotion, and splash of fun.

Laufer, B. (2009). Second language vocabulary acquisition from language input and from form-focused activities. Language Teaching, Vol. 42, Issue 03, July, pg. 341-254.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs

 

EFL Gamification 3: Mechanics

This is the third post on gamification in EFL. If you have read the first post on motivation and the second post on changing behaviors, you might be wondering when I’ll get around to actually talking about how to deploy gamification in classes. Well, hold on to your roses for a bit because the over-riding principle everyone needs to understand is that gamification is not a toolbox you fling open to pull out badges and points that you can use to change the motivation and engagement levels of your learners. The key to successful gamification in education is to design it into an educational intervention with clear goals and good understanding of your learners. You need to understand what their motiviation status is, and you need to understand how you can change the behaviors of that group and how much you can get away with. But mostly, you need to wrap your head around the idea that gamification is not coercion; it is helping learners motivate themselves and organize themselves and have fun reaching goals they themselves really want to reach. So in this post I’d like to take a look at how we can gamify something to make it easier to do.

Jane McGonigal is the author of Reality is Broken, a wonderful book on how games can change the world, as well as a famous TED talk presenter. She is also, I might add, not a big fan of the term gamification or what passes for gamification in most quarters. But she is passionate about games, gaming, and gamefulness. What does it mean to be “gameful?” Well, it means “…to have the spirit of a gamer: someone who is optimistic, curious, motivated, and always up for a tough challenge” (from her CDC talk How to Re-Invent Reality Without Gamification, or We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!, as are the next few quotations). Doesn’t that also sound like an ideal student? And how do we get our learners there? Well, we design for it by “…[creating] platforms and experiences that empower [students] to have the spirit of a gamer in real life.” And how do we start? Well, by remembering that what we are really trying to do is “…empower [students] to get more of what they really want from life..or give them positive powers in real life,” rather than just toss out points or badges, etc. which don’t have any value in and of themselves. In the above quotations, I took the liberty of changing the original “players” to [students]. This is problematic, I know, and if Ms. McGonigal were to read her words altered in this manner, she probably would object because there is a very important difference between players and students: choice. You see, voluntary participation is one of her defining traits for  games, and I am worried that she and many other people don’t see students as voluntary participants. But I don’t think I am wrong in describing high school students as voluntary participants. I know, plenty of students, teachers, and rock songs emphatically disagree with me, I know. But they are wrong. A strong case can be made that just by being in a classroom, students have accepted that they are there to learn or at least subject themselves to experiences that have learning as a goal. Legally, I’m right. Obligatory education ends with junior high school. High school students have elected to be there. They aimed for it, studied for it, and their parents poured lots of money into preparing them to take the tests for it. But they won’t see it that way. And they may balk at a class that is organized with game features and claim that they never elected to be put through that and why can’t they be allowed to have the regular droning teacher who stops droning at the bell. In other words, they still will need to be sold on the idea so they can “volunteer” to participate. Let’s leave it at that for the moment. We’ll have to come back to this topic in a future post.

So, you’ve got the learners in the classroom. Good. Now let’s gamify!  We want them to improve their English proficiency. What does that mean to everyone? Is there a difference between the teacher and the students on that point? If there is, it will need to be addressed.  Then, according to Keving Werbach and Dan Hunter in For the Win, here’s what we do. We define our objectives and delineate our target behaviors. This involves chunking content into manageable pieces. Then we think of feedback loops (how we’ll provide specific feedback for each chunk on our agenda),  and progression stairs (how we’ll show progression or improvement over longer spans of time). While this approach addresses the actual process of learning as it will take place through activities in the classroom, I think it misses an important point: there is no connection here between the content and the mechanics. It is as if any content could be used with these tools. And that is just not the case. There’s no story here. There’s no fun here. There’s no purpose here.

So let’s go back to Ms. McGonigal and motivation. “Games,” she writes in Reality is Broken, “help put people back in control…Progressing towards goals and getting better at a game instills a sense of power and mastery” (pg. 149). This is the same idea that Self-determination Theory posits, as we saw in the first post in this series. For a better, more actionable model, let’s look at SuperBetter, a game she came up with to work on her own challenge.

After suffering a rather severe concussion, Ms. McGonigal found herself suffering from headaches and vertigo that just didn’t get better–not after a few hours, not after a few days, and not after even a few weeks. She began to despair as the symptoms didn’t improve and she was unable to read, write, run, work,or  play games or use a computer at all. When the doctors told her her window of recovery was likely three months to a year, she decided to assert her power and take a greater role in her recovery. She made a game. She called it SuperBetter. She didn’t need a website (though the game is online now), and she didn’t need badges or many of the other trappings of games. But what she did need is other participants. Let me summarize her missions to get an idea of how it worked.

  1. First she created an identity based on a fictional hero whose context she could leverage for her own situation. She chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and named herself Jane the Concussion Slayer.
  2. Just as Buffy has allies and foes, she chose friends and family to play the parts of allies who would help her to overcome her condition. These people played the roles of information gathering, tracking progress, advising, monitoring, encouraging, etc. When facing this kind of problem, you need help, she says, and it is easier to ask people to play a game than to help you again and again.
  3. She identified the bad guys, the challenges, that she needed to address one by one. She made a list and prepared to vanquish them.
  4. She identified her power-ups, the fun things she could do to make herself feel better (hugging her dog, listening to classical music–whatever she could do when she felt she was not making progress)
  5. She created a to-do list. She included things she could do immediately and things that she would do as she got better. These improved her quality of life and gave her things to look forward to. Jane included baking cookies for friends and wearing some special clothes out on a date.
  6. Once she had completed the 5 missions above, she kept going with #4 and #5. She had a secret meeting with one of her confidante allies at the end of each day. And she recorded your exploits in an audio journal.
What Ms. McGonigal did was create an alternate reality game (ARG), and a very flexible one at that. It provides narrative structure and social support but allows her–no actually requires her–to put in her own challenges, her own aids, power-ups, escapes, and her own long and short-term goals. “Doing these [power-ups and short-term quality of life enhancers] didn’t require being cured; it just required making an effort to participate more fully in my own recovery process” (pg. 140).
These, I would argue, are the key mechanics of gamification. Let’s give it a try. Rethink the concussion challenge above. Instead of a young woman with an accident or illness, try to imagine some low proficiency high school language learners who have experienced little if any success in junior high school. They could be poster children for learned helplessness. They are in first year of high school and are facing three more unpleasant years of English inefficacy. How might Ms. McGonigal’s approach help them to participate more fully in their own learning process? And then, how could your feedback loops and progression stairs help them to develop and recognize their own efficacy and sense of power and mastery? And yes, feel free to use points and badges and leaderboards, if and when they actually mean something.
Finally, take a look at the About Page for SuperBetter. It tells you very clearly what SuperBetter is and is not. They give you a good idea of the possibilities and limitations of this kind of approach. I know, it is meant for people with illnesses. But I think a similar general approach could be deployed in educational settings as part of a gamification/educational game design/gameful undertaking.

 

Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs

 

Approaches to EFL High School Teacher Training in Japan

I work (mostly) with  high school English teachers in Japan. These teachers are Japanese native speakers whose proficiency with English ranges from good to native-like. My group has been doing this training for two years now and we are starting to get a better idea of the needs of teachers and the benefits and limitations of training programs. EFL teacher education is both important and challenging. Compared to many other countries, the number of required courses and the amount of pre-service training in Japan is remarkably low. There are almost no graduate teachers college programs, and for example, English literature majors who take only a couple of supplementary courses at university and complete a three-week in-school training session can and do become licensed teachers. As long as such teachers stick to the textbook, they usually have enough subject matter expertise to suffice (with a little preparation). But many such teachers have never experienced communicative language lessons themselves, have not really received much TESOL training (if any) and are likely not confident at all about their own English skills.To reiterate, many, many teachers have limited experience, limited training, and limited subject matter knowledge and skills.

There are structural and logistical problems associated with providing in-service training. At present in public schools, there is often little coordination, sharing, or in-school mentoring or training for English teachers. But that is another topic. Instead, let’s look at what is done in training programs. In looking at teacher training in general, we find three main approaches are being used in Japan (probably everywhere): providing models that also motivate (super teachers!) to demonstrate activities; working on the language proficiency of the teachers themselves (subject matter expertise); and getting teachers to engage in action research. I’d like to talk a little about the benefits and limitations of each one and then talk about our flagship program, which makes use of all three. I don’t mean to suggest that we have managed to figure out the absolute best way of training teachers where others have not, but I think it should become clear that deploying only one approach is unlikely to produce significant improvement.

Motivating models. Common at conferences or on DVD, super teachers (and yes, they are actually called Super Teachers), demonstrate activities that usually illustrate new approaches. There are several goals but the basic idea–in addition to raising awareness  about or teaching techniques or approaches usually connected to some pedagogy–is to get around the isolation of the teaching profession. Teachers generally work alone. If they are lucky, they can regularly observe and discuss lessons with colleagues, but often there are few opportunities to do so, and they may not be surrounded by teachers overflowing with innovations. Super teachers are trusted  near-peer role models who show concrete examples of activities. But there is another benefit of observing these super peer models.   Through them, teachers can see possibilities that exist beyond the walls of their own schools. Most change happens as a result of individuals taking risks. Very, very few schools have more than one or two of these individuals. Individual risk-takers or potential risk-takers almost always feel isolated. Motivating models on DVD or in books  or at very infrequent conferences can feel like a lifeline. There is a strong motivational feel-good aura that accompanies super teachers. But if we consider using them for training, limitations emerge. One problem with these models is that schools in Japan are at different levels of academic ability in addition to having different school cultures, and so wholesale transfer of techniques and approaches is often just not possible. And in the case of many super teachers, although their  performance is impressive and inspiring,  it often feels more like it is the result of their personality rather than pedagogy. In other words, what they demonstrate is often perceived as not replicable. And in any case, it is usually just one part of a lesson. Very often it is the most impressive part, the part that makes them look like super teachers. It’s impressive, but it leaves you with questions about what has led up to this point. Super teachers are important as models, but without detailed explanation (and discussion) about the process and  the approach, they often generate more heat than light.

Improving language proficiency. Research shows that the results of teacher expertise training are mixed. But proficiency with English is very much connected to the confidence EFL teachers have. This year, education boards across the country are pushing for teachers to teach English in English. There is, however, a lot of resistance. At least some of that stems from the fact that teachers are not proficient users of English themselves, either in or beyond the classroom. This is no doubt common in EFL settings. Teachers, it must be remembered, are largely products of the system they are now part of–a system that rarely if ever offered opportunities for communicative use of the language. It was almost all grammar translation and memorization in years past. But the present teachers themselves were successful at it, or they wouldn’t be teachers now. Many of them managed to develop impressive speaking, writing, and listening skills in addition to acquiring huge vocabularies and detailed knowledge of grammar, but it was almost always outside of the regular secondary school institutional English classes they experienced. Their teaching styles, however, tend to reflect the way they were taught in high school. Times have changed, but perceptions of what is appropriate for high school English classes still seem to be lagging behind.  In an age where trips and studying abroad are not uncommon and the rest of the world is just an Internet click or two away, you would think that the outside world would be an ever-present entity enveloping the EFL classroom, but that is not often the case. The notion that even beginners need to start hearing and using language communicatively is surprisingly not that widely accepted. No, let me re-phrase that. It is widely acknowledged but not widely embraced. My non-native English speaking colleagues feel very strongly that improved proficiency leads to improved confidence, more communicative use of English in the classroom, more willingness to take risks, and improved status with learners.Language is a skill. It is observable. So unlike math knowledge or science knowledge, teacher expertise in language (knowledge and skill) is essential for EFL teachers. But just being proficient at English does not make you a good teacher. I have observed many teachers talking over the heads of students in English and then only really becoming comprehensible to them when they switch to Japanese. Providing good input for learners, interacting with them communicatively, and using English to activate and build schema are also important skills. They are easier if teachers are more proficient with the language, but being proficient with the language does not ensure that teachers have these skills. But as far as teacher training programs are concerned, the bigger problem is time. Improving English proficiency takes hundreds of hours. Giving a few hours of writing or presentation skills practice might make participants feel a little better, but let’s not kid ourselves about any bumps in proficiency. If language skills are going to improve, it’ll happen through a concerted effort by the individual teacher who weaves language use and learning into his or her daily life. For training programs, the best we can do is introduce language learning a practice resources and hope participants will find them worth using them for self access.

Action research. John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers stresses how important it is to get teachers talking and thinking about learning rather than teaching. Action research seems to facilitate this. It never ceases to amaze me how many teachers just accept the culture of teaching they grew up in and just continue doing what has always been done, never questioning whether it is effective or not. Action research challenges teachers to look critically at what they are doing in a systematic way. For many teachers, it causes a crack in the iceberg of teaching culture they are part of. It is a catalyst for change. But it is a real burden. It is  hard for teachers to understand, plan, and undertake action research in their own classes. It requires experienced guidance and support and quite a lot of time. And time is always a problem. Unlike teachers in many countries, teachers in Japan have a vast array of duties beyond teaching. There are club duties, homeroom duties, event planning and coordination duties, and even sometimes locking down the building at night. Teachers come early every morning, leave late, and come in on weekends and most days during the summer. Long chunks of time for participating in professional development are an impossible dream for almost all teachers. But it’s not only the time. Action research has a narrow focus. In order to see some real improvement, more drastic approach changes are sometimes necessary. Action research is better suited to tweaking activities than comparing completely different approaches.

So which of these three approaches do we take? Well, we combine all of them. It is our view that each reinforces the others, though it is action research that is the key approach. Without it, the others are too easily ignored.  Real change here in Japan can only happen if confident, competent teachers look at the current culture of English education critically, keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t with something  different. This requires critically examining current practice and knowing what alternatives are out there. This mindset develops through action research, but action research by itself is probably not sufficient. In a context where one’s own learning experience is not always a good source of ideas, where insufficient pre-service training is the norm, and there is little time for in-service professional development, maximizing impact of that precious in-service training time is crucial. Just showing a video  of a super teacher or just providing a few hours of English language training will not get you far, though they are fairly easy to do. It has to be the teachers themselves who make the discoveries and the changes. They have to see them, consider and discuss them and process them a little, and they have to feel confident enough to give them a try. This is a long process.

Over the last few years, I have become convinced that our training unit has rather serious limitations. We are too far away from the students. We are too detached from the schools  where our teacher participants are working. Our program runs for ten days spread out over the course of a year. We video the teachers twice, near the beginning and near the end but schedule limitations mean that the process of change mostly remains hidden to us. Although we stay in touch with past participants, there is not really any follow-up. Creating a more resilient community is one of our goals. But in the present state of poor workplace collegiality, the pace of change will be slow indeed. Schools need to make it easier for teachers to share ideas and observe each other’s lessons and provide good feedback. There needs to be more focus on learning, and sharing and implementing ideas that promote learning. Without this, I’m afraid, real effective change cannot spread.

Photo credit: Okinawa Soba. Accessible online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/2369860061/in/set-72157604292609458/