How Teachers Can “Level Up”
Educating With Gamification Is More Than Just Video Games
by Dr. Rod Berger
Jonathan Cassie has been a teacher and education leader for 20 years and is currently Director of Innovation at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, CA in the heart of Orange County. Cassie is the author of Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, which won the 2017 EXCEL Gold Award in the Technical Books category. He has consulted with teachers, schools and districts on the benefits of gamified classrooms and using games in the classroom, whether for a 15-minute lesson, a unit, a class or an entire curriculum.
In this interview, Jon gave enlightening answers to a number of questions about gamification. How can it be used to engage students? What are specifics to know about when gamifying lessons in middle or elementary school? How can this approach be effective in literacy instruction? You’ll learn about Jon’s threefold educational philosophy, his favorite board games, and much more.
Rod Berger: Let’s start with what is likely the hardest question to answer, because I’ll be asking you to narrow down a topic you can discuss at great length to only a few brief thoughts. In just a few sentences, how would you summarize your educational philosophy?
Jon Cassie: Education, particularly in the twenty-first century, has a threefold purpose. First, an excellent education gives young people the opportunity to make dignified and dignifying choices about their lives. It affords them the capacity to make decisions about work, family, self-direction and engagement in local, American and global cultures that are informed, rather than reflexive. Second, by developing the critical capacities of young minds, education gives students the capacity, as adults, to be full participants in democratic society. Third, through rigorous questioning, problem-posing and creative thinking, education affords students the power to solve any problem to which they might set their minds to solving.
RB: One of the things that’s core to your work with gamification is student engagement. What is it about gamified instruction that makes learning more engaging for students?
JC: Fundamentally, games are fun! Students play games of all sorts in their “real life” all the time. The kinds of games they enjoy depends on the student. Some like video games, others board games, still others role-playing games. And don’t forget athletes! Even if you’re a solo athlete, if you’re competing you’re playing a game with structure, rules and most importantly the sweet satisfaction that comes from winning. All of these things combined help make gamified instruction a useful tool for teachers. Even more useful than winning is the learning that comes from not winning. Games reward you whether you win or lose.
RB: When many people discuss gamification in education, they automatically think of video games. Video games can certainly be an awesome tool for gamification, but you’ve also done quite a bit with board games. Do you have a couple of favorite board games right now that are showing positive results in the classroom?
JC: Gamification informed by the way video games work has the potential to be very effective, but they’re not the only kind of games out there! I am a big fan of board games, card games and role-playing games because for teachers who are just beginning to try gamification, they’re a lot easier to understand. Even the most complicated board game is going to have fewer mechanics to understand than the majority of video games. Board game-informed mechanics are being used (or are about to be used) in schools all over the world. Some games to really think about are 7 Wonders, which has an intriguing card drafting mechanic, and Machi Koro, which is a very simple city-building game that could be used to help anyone understand how communities and cities work. A game I’ve just played called This War of Mine is essentially a story-driven game in which the players play civilians trapped in a city under siege (think Sarajevo during the Bosnia War in the ‘90s). I hope to see it used right out of the box as a way to help students understand the experience of being a civilian in war.
RB: In previous interviews you’ve explained your belief that the sweet spot for gamification is in the middle grades. What are some of the reasons gamified instruction is so effective in grades 5-8?
JC: First off, the middle school age student retains much of the enthusiasm for learning that the elementary school student has but isn’t burdened yet by the high school-to-college grind and the high stakes environment that often crushes a student’s willingness to push herself out of comfort zones. Second, middle school age students are better able to think abstractly and strategically, bringing more kinds of game mechanics into the reality of usability by a teacher. Third, when properly designed, the competitive environment can be really stimulating.
RB: I’ve also heard you explain that skill-based gamification can be effective in elementary grades, and as early as kindergarten. What are some approaches that work well with younger students? Do you think that getting students started earlier with gamified instruction, if done appropriately, can have them develop a more positive mindset about learning that will carry into their more advanced schooling?
JC: Approaches that would work well with the youngest students are ones that bring very straightforward mechanics to bear to teach more complex issues. The game Machi Koro, for instance, would be easily usable by a teacher with 2nd grade students to do social studies. The trick is using the most straightforward mechanics. The game Set, which is about pattern recognition is another worth mentioning. Are there patterns in math or language that a teacher might be interested in helping her students master? Using the rules and mechanics of the game Set would be a great way to impart those skills. Students who develop a capacity to learn from failure early are going to be well-positioned to learn from more challenging setbacks later.
RB: Literacy is one subject area that may not seem to many like the obvious fit for gamification, but one where there’s some real promise. What are some of the reasons why new approaches to literacy instruction are needed? Can you explain some of the ways in which gamification can be uniquely effective for language arts and literacy instruction?
JC: Games that feature story-based mechanics (Tales of the Arabian Nights, Winter Tales, This War of Mine) are all good places for teachers interested in gamification to start exploring topics in literacy. These games can be played and then students could use the experience of playing them as a catalyst for their own writing. Perhaps the best place to explore literacy is in the realm of role-playing games. Every role-playing game expects the player to generate a character and story around that character. This imposes some expectations on the part of the teacher to really effectively plan the experience. I discuss how to do this at length in my book Level Up Your Classroom.
RB: Here’s the last question to wrap things up. If you’re speaking to either a school leader or individual teacher who is considering gamification ― either for some individual lessons or on a larger scale ― what are the three questions that educator must ask himself or herself to make sure he or she is designing an approach that will be successful?
JC: Are the rules you’ve written for the gamified experience clear? Can a student follow them without you spoon-feeding them?
What is the win-condition of this gamified experience (as every game can be won)?
Do the mechanics serve the learning or does the learning serve the mechanics? If it’s the former, proceed. If not, do something else!
About Jonathan Cassie
Jonathan Cassie is Director of Innovation at TVT Community Day School in Irvine, CA. He has previously taught history, English, Latin, and game design at schools in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Cassie is the author of Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, published by ASCD, which won the 2017 EXCEL Gold Award in the Technical Books category.
Throughout his 20-year career in independent schools, he has been a student and practitioner of innovation and change in education. He earned an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from UCLA, has five level-100 toons in World of Warcraft (as of this writing), contributed to the first Game of Thrones roleplaying game, and has written two books on topics related to building meaningful roleplaying cultures and experiences for players. Learn more at joncassie.com or follow Jon on Twitter.