I’m not a big fan of the trend towards “gamifying” learning, especially the trend towards creating computer games for learning. There are a number of common and well-known concerns about such games: they largely promote shallow learning, there are concerns about data privacy, and they increase screen time. These are real concerns and I worry about them, but my bigger concern is about the whole concept of gamification: these games assume that children have to be tricked into learning.
To be clear, I have no problem with games or with having fun while learning. In Montessori classrooms, we teach our students various games, but they are played with other people, and the game aspect is as much to support the children’s social interactions as it is to support academic learning. In fact, most of the games are hardly games at all: they have no winners, no prizes, and aren’t even necessarily any more fun than any other activities in the classroom.
Even better is when the children invent their own games to learn something. Often this is nothing complicated: just quizzing each other on math facts or spelling can be a game. My students invented their own spelling game: they started asking me to give them spelling words at the end of the day for dismissal. It became a class tradition, and they loved it. There were no points, prizes, or competitions. I just gave each child a word at about their level, and the other children cheered them on while they tried to spell it.
The issue with gamifying learning is that it covers up both the hard work and the satisfaction that comes from learning something new. There is no need to do that. Learning is hard work, but it is also satisfying, and children are built to give that effort, when they have the chance to do it naturally and without drudgery. In fact, we basically can’t stop them from learning. They learn while playing; they learn while watching grownups; they learn from older children; they learn from moving; they learn from trying. Unless we break children of the natural desire to learn, which sadly, many schools do, they don’t need to be tricked into it.
Moreover, research has long established that rewards (just like punishments) can change behavior for the better in the short term, but cause a great deal of damage in the long term. When people are offered a reward, they focus on the reward, and the task required to get there becomes a means to an end. Children who are rewarded for learning come to see learning as a job to be gotten through in order to get a reward. Actually, I shouldn’t even say learning here. A better term would be “learning-related tasks” or “tasks that look to grownups like they should make learning happen”. Eventually, children learn to take whatever shortcuts they can to produce the right performance to get the rewards, be it digital trophies, good grades, or a pizza party at the library (needless to say, I’m not a big fan of summer reading programs that offer prizes, either). For more on the problem with rewards, see Alfie Kohn’s classic, Punished by Rewards.
An even deeper issue with rewards is that the rewardee comes to expect a reward, and resists doing the rewarded activity if there is no reward offered. Every time we reward children for, say, playing a math game, we encourage them to expect rewards for doing math. We give them the subtle message that learning math is unpleasant and to be avoided. It’s not unpleasant. It’s challenging. And that can be quite fun, if we aren’t taught that challenges are scary or we are failures if we make mistakes.
Besides the pedagogical problem with rewards of any type, I have a deeper philosophical problem with gamification: I don’t believe in tricking children. This is something I had to learn over a long period of time in my classroom. When I started teaching, if I wanted the children to do something, I would try to convince them that they wanted to do it. “It’s time for Friday cleanup. You’ll be so much happier in a clean classroom,” I would say. I finally realized that didn’t work very well. The children saw right through it. Many of them couldn’t have cared less about the state of the classroom (not an uncommon trait in the elementary set). I began telling them the truth: “I expect you to take care of our classroom, and that means giving it a good cleaning every week.”
At first, I was quite surprised that they actually responded better to this. Now, I’m not so surprised. Of course they responded better; I told them the truth. They learned they could trust me to be honest, and that I thought they could handle the truth. When I say a particular lesson is in the public school requirements and they must follow up on it, they know that it really is in the public school requirements and they must follow up on it. Moreover, they begin to appreciate me enough to care for my needs. When I tell them, “I have a bad headache today. Could you please be extra careful to keep your voices quiet?” they are extra careful to keep their voices quiet. Then one of the children will likely offer me a cup of tea.
We obsess so much about children showing respect, but although we give lip service to the idea, we are rarely serious about showing respect to children. They deserve respect, and when we offer it to them, they will want to be worthy of it.
Even with some of the “boring” bits of learning, like memorizing math facts, which really does need to be done at some point, we can be honest with children. “This is just one of those things you need to learn. Our society expects educated people to know these things, and it helps you do everything else in math by freeing up your memory to concentrate on other stuff. How are you going to learn your math facts?” Children come up with remarkably creative ways to manage their boredom, when we give them the chance: they get parents or siblings to quiz them in the car, they make flashcards and quiz each other, they learn one math fact per day, they write songs or chants to learn skip counting, they invent math fact board games. Sometimes, they just sit down and drill themselves, because they want to be responsible members of society.
So the real problem with gamification of learning is that it’s disrespectful. It’s a dirty trick. It says to children: “you don’t want to learn, so I have to force you learn, but I don’t really want to face that idea or seem mean or get into a battle with you, so instead I’m going to trick you into it.” Children deserve better than that.