Behaviour management: A beautiful game?

Kids hate work and love games. What if learning WAS a game! Hooray! As Mary Poppins said, “Once you find the fun in work then - SNAP! - the work’s a game!”

‘Gamifying’ education is all the rage. If you read Wired, New Scientist, or subscribe to the groovier end of eduweb latte bars, then you will know this already. For those of you who weren’t born into the womb of the Matrix, I’ll explain in old money. Gamification is the process of applying principles of gaming to the classroom in order to achieve outcomes that are mostly centred on motivating the children to perform desired behaviours. In other words, you designate clearly defined activities and attach some benefit to them.

This, you may note, is nothing new. Schools and teachers have been running competitions and handing out gold stars since chalk first met blackboard.

What is new is that this process has been, like so many other perfectly innocent behaviour strategies, hijacked, buggered, rebranded and sold back to you as something novel and spectacular. These days you can barely move without someone trying to flog your own spit back to you, calling it the next big thing.

Ten points to Gryffindor

When you attach a desired behaviour to an external reward, you risk habituating the subject to expect the reward for doing the activity. But what happens when you run out of lollipops? If the expectation is that an activity (like, I dunno, learning) is to be pursued because it is followed by some other good, then you are teaching the child that the external good is the real goal.

There is a dangerous and conceptual abyss of wrong here. Behaviour cannot be gamified without treating it as a means to a further end. Bad behaviour isn’t bad because it leads to unsatisfactory outcomes but because it is bad. Good behaviour should be pursued for its own end, rather than as an intermediary step on the path to a primary, usually material, goal. Children should learn that goodness - behaviour, effort, kindness - is an intrinsically valuable commodity.

Pardon me, but life isn’t a game. Life is not valuable only because it facilitates the accumulation of stars, power-ups and secret-level unlocks. It is valuable in itself. So is learning. This is something that successive governments have forgotten and that industry seems never to have known in the first place. Education doesn’t serve to facilitate the economic success of society; it facilitates the flourishing of the human being.

What’s the real purpose of gamifying education? Hang on, Bob, I know this…I know this…is it…money? YES IT IS! Gamification is yet another assault on education by people who usually know very little of what it’s really like to teach a classroom full of kids. It is an attempt to bring the paradigm of the videogame into the classroom while selling you an enormous box of tat you never knew you needed. Gamifying is dangerous enough when it involves lollipop sticks and marbles in a jar, but it surpasses the merely suspicious when it becomes attached to IT supplies, software and, of course, the installation, training and maintenance of that software. Gamification is a marketing scam, sold to the gullible. We can see through you, Caliban. Take your magic beans and stick them where even OfSTED won’t find them.

There isn’t a damn thing that can be done to teach kids, to motivate them, to get them behaving, that can’t be done with a voice and a brain. That is all teachers need to teach, and that’s all they’ve needed since teaching began. This isn’t to say that technology isn’t a wonderful tool that can help you do things in challenging and interesting ways. But so is my best mate Monsieur le Marker Pen.

When the rewards disappear

Removing the reward can lead to demotivation. Human beings are demons of caprice. How quickly do we tire of every satiated whim? Bloody quickly, in my experience, and you can double that for children. If you promise pupils a biscuit every time they get a question right, pretty soon you’ll have a room full of fat kids who don’t like biscuits.

Extrinsic motivation is the cheese in the mousetrap of education. It isn’t education itself. As a strategy it has its place, but most strategies do. My toilet brush has a place, but it isn’t in my lessons…unless OfSTED suddenly decide that they’re necessary, in which case they become essential to my plenary.

In order to build meaningful motivation to learn, we must cultivate an appreciation of the intrinsic value of our subjects. It isn’t your job to entertain, or to have kids Mexican-waving in inspiration every lesson. Learning is often bloody hard work, but you are dodging the teaching bullet if you think you shouldn’t at least try to communicate why your subject is amazing.

Sometimes I tell classes: “I love this. This is my subject. I could eat it with a spoon and maybe you could too.” What I don’t do is tell them that if they please just get to the last paragraph or third sum, then they shall have a lollipop. What are we, beggars? We should be proud of our subjects because of their lineage and intrinsic value, not because they have some external utility related to the next emergent industry being imagined by middle-browed futurists who cannot conceive of a tomorrow defined by anything other than panicked turbulence and instability.

Running the behaviour of a classroom will always involve a little associative magic. If you fail to behave then I will clobber you with the remedial BFG of a detention. If you conduct yourself with grace, then you can expect favours and power-ups. However, that cannot be the end of behaviour management. Children need to be taught to value the behaviours for themselves, otherwise they will always be looking for gold stars which will one day stop coming. And what then?

The curse of man is that we are doomed to forget. Every generation reinvents modernity and imagines that they are the first to have climbed the summit. It is absurd and patronising to claim that gamification is new, or is the answer education has been waiting for. Like so many philosophers’ stones, this is not true alchemy. It is useful sometimes. But so is a toothpick.

Game Over.

Good luck


Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him. His latest new book Teacher, is out now, published by Bloomsbury.


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