I cast a spell on my class with wizards and fantasy

26th February 2016 at 00:00
Role-play game rewarding good behaviour is a magic incentive for pupils to toe the line

7W really are a wonderful group of children. Yet they are all possessed by the same demon. This demon can be found in almost every class in every secondary school across the land. It can defeat the most experienced teachers and destroy a cohort’s exam results. The demon’s name? Low-level chatter.

Teachers settle for the fact that there will be at least one difficult class on their timetable and I had feared that 7W was this class for me. I had to ask 7W not once, but three times, to be quiet at the start of a lesson. When I asked them to discuss ideas between themselves, most of the talk was off-task. For written tasks, if I didn’t insist on silence, the work rarely got finished to a high standard. My relationship with 7W used to be one of overseer to the workers.

But while browsing through Twitter one evening, I came across a potential solution. Someone I follow tweeted a link to a free classroom resource called Classcraft, which promised to solve the behaviour issues of my class through role play.

I should state from the off that I am a fan of gamification. Having spent my formative years waiting for Manic Miner to load on to my ZX Spectrum, my A-level revision time trying to master Commando on my Amstrad CPC instead of reading Jane Eyre and a good deal of time at university escaping from Castle Wolfenstein on my 386 PC, I have long been a convert to the power of games.

And I had already experimented with various strategies to gamify my classroom to improve behaviour. For example, I had a running score board, based on the rewardand-consequence points that we have at the heart of the school behaviour-management system. These points led to certificates (wow!), perhaps a film at the local arts centre for the class with the most points (amazing!) and one contributory factor in awarding the House Cup (mindblowing!).

I also created digital badges to email to pupils once they had reached a set of criteria, for example, “Mastering the Battle of Hastings”, and I labelled rows of tables “Division 2, Division 1, Championship, Premier League” and pupils could level up depending on their performance (note: not attainment).

Immediate reward

All of these strategies had only a limited impact. Why? The feedback or perceived rewards were hidden and delayed. Reward points were entered after the lesson, digital badges emailed in the evening, the decision to promote made between lessons. What video games have taught me is that feedback, progress and reward all need to be immediate.

It was with this in mind that I considered this latest gamification opportunity. It was a game aimed at improving behaviour (tick), it credited progress (tick), it was free (tick) and the rewards were immediate (big tick).

The one thing that made me wary, though, was that it was a fantasy role-play game (tick?). Pastimes once deemed “geeky” have encroached a long way into the mainstream, but had they encroached this far?

The game is web-based, controlled by the teacher and is easy to use. The pupils in each class are grouped into teams and each team member chooses to be a warrior, a mage [a wizard] or a healer. The teacher customises the rules of the game, so that each student can earn points for good behaviour or suffer for negative behaviour.

For any negative behaviours, not only does the pupil’s character lose Health Points (HP), but so do the other members of their team.

If players lose all of their Health Points, they are entered into the Book of Laments, which come with a punishment. Such sanctions include: learn a poem by heart to recite the following day, bake cupcakes for the class, and hand in your homework two days early.

Meanwhile, if pupils demonstrate positive behaviours for learning, they gain Experience Points (XP). Gain 600 XP and you “level up”. Each time you level up, you earn gold, with which you can buy new equipment or clothing for your avatar. You are also able to develop new powers. For example, “Sainthood” (being able to open a window); “Invisibility” (gaining the ability to leave the class for two minutes); and “Teleportation” (being able to swap seats with someone else).

The most interesting is the “Shield” power. If a pupil in a team is to lose HP, another pupil can shield them and share the loss of health between them, which creates a moral dilemma every lesson.

It is amazing how committed pupils can be to earning powers, especially when they realise that they cannot go to the toilet without invisibility.

The impact on 7W was immediate. The first lesson I used it, I awarded XP to those pupils who were sitting quietly with all of their equipment out in front of them. Without prompting, every other child followed suit. The following lesson, I arrived a couple of minutes late and found the whole class sitting in total silence with all of their equipment on the desk.

When I awarded one pupil a little XP for saying “please”, by the end of the lesson I had to ask the class to stop being so polite as it was becoming a little unnerving.

And the improvements continue: the standard of presentation has rocketed, poor work is increasingly rare as they know it costs them HP, and the atmosphere in the classroom is now purposeful, supportive and focused on positive behaviours. When the demon of low-level chatter does appear, pupils know it will cost them and their team HP, so they quickly dispatch it through peer pressure.

This game, in my school, with my classes, has somehow worked.

Admittedly, there are some side effects. I now find myself more in the role of Dungeon Master – from the Dungeons & Dragons role-play game – in my classroom rather than as a supportive, guiding teacher. I spend much of my time deciding how much XP or HP acts deserve, negotiating with players with shields whether to protect others, enquiring who is a saint, so that a window can be opened and explaining to Alex that even though he is desperate for the toilet, he has yet to earn invisibility.

Would my time be better spent explaining the economic motivations for the transatlantic slave trade or the morality of John Newton’s role? I am also a real believer in the inherent rewards of knowledge: should learning not be a fascinating end in itself?

But the pupils in 7W are displaying positive behaviours that they were not previously. And learning is difficult, messy, frustrating and rarely offers immediate, tangible rewards. If I removed the game, would their behaviours for learning be sufficiently embedded to continue without it? If I’m honest, I doubt it.

So, I am cautiously supportive of this form of gamification. I would recommend it for that class that has become possessed by the demon of low-level chatter. It is great fun, and can show pupils that they can behave and work in an exemplary manner. However, remember that this is not a long-term model that will profoundly change behaviours and inculcate a love of learning. If I find that on my quest for classroom harmony, well, then I will truly become Legend.

John Stanier is assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon @JohnStanier1

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