Lollipop learning ends on a sour note

20th January 2012 at 00:00
The 'gamification' of learning will only teach children to expect rewards. Tom Bennett reports

Kids seem to hate work and love games. What if learning were a game? Hooray! As Mary Poppins said, "Once you find the fun in the work, then..." (snaps fingers) "...The work's a game!"

Gamifying education is all the rage. You'll have heard about it if you read Wired, New Scientist, TESpro or subscribe to the groovier end of the eduweb latte bars. In fact, you're probably earning tokens for Second Life and rubbing your thighs furiously as you read this. If not, you'll at least know one of these people, particularly if any of your colleagues use Google+ circles to interact with layers of students and other educational end-users. They probably say "end-users", too. They mean students. Nathan Barley didn't die; he merely moved into the pedagogic real estate of children's souls.

For those of you who weren't born into the Matrix, I'll explain in old money. Gamification is the process in which the principles of gaming are applied to the classroom in order to achieve a variety of outcomes, mostly centred on motivating the children to perform some desired behaviour. In other words, you designate clearly defined behaviours and attach some desired benefit. This, you may be noting, is nothing new. Teachers have been running competitions and handing out gold stars since chalk first met blackboard.

What's new is that this process has been (like so many other perfectly innocent and simple behaviour strategies) hijacked, rebranded and sold back to you as something novel and spectacular.

The most obvious problem with gaming education is that when you attach a desired behaviour to an external reward, you run the risk of habituating the contestant to expect the reward for doing the activity.

There is a dangerous abyss of wrong here. Children should be taught that goodness (behaviour, effort, kindness) is an intrinsically valuable commodity, otherwise we teach children that all enterprise in life is subservient to a primary aim - usually a material benefit.

Life isn't valuable because it facilitates the accumulation of stars, power-ups and secret-level unlocks: it's valuable in itself. And learning is a good in itself.

So what's the real purpose of gamifying education? I know this ... Is it ... money? It's an attempt to bring the paradigm of the video game into the classroom, and at the same time sell you an enormous box of tat that you never knew you needed before, because you never did. Gamifying is dangerous enough when it involves lollipop sticks and marbles in a jar, and the odd "You did great!" stamp on someone's forehead, but it surpasses the merely suspicious and becomes indecent when it becomes attached to IT supplies, software and, of course, the related installation, training and maintenance.

Another problem is that human beings are driven by a love of novelty and delight. Promise your pupils a biscuit every time they get a question right and pretty soon you have a room full of fat kids who don't like biscuits.

In order to build meaningful motivation to learn, the aim should be to help the children see the subject they are studying as valuable in itself. Every teacher should possess - if they are possessed of any dignity - some pride in the subject they teach: the beauty of mathematics; the elegant Rolls-Royce engine or the perfect phrase; the childish awe of science; the giddy numinousness of the mystical mind.

Somewhere in your education of others, this needs to breathe. Sometimes I just tell them: I love this; this is my subject; I could eat it with a spoon, maybe you could too. What I don't do is tell them that (wheedle, wheedle) if they please, please just get to the last paragraph, the third sum, the end of the lesson, then Johnny shall have a lollipop and gold stars shall pour down like balloons at New Year.

What are we, beggars? We should be proud of our subjects; we should be proud of their lineage and intrinsic value.

Running the behaviour of the room will always involve a little associative magic: if you fail to behave, I will clobber you with the remedial BFG of a detention. If you conduct yourself with grace, expect favours and power-ups. But that cannot be the end of behaviour management. Children need to be taught to value the behaviours for themselves, otherwise they'll always be looking for gold stars - and one day they will stop coming. What then? Their hearts will be broken as surely as the dog who discovers that, sometimes, sitting will fail to generate chocolate drops. A disappointed child is hard to win back.

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