The Gamification of 5th Grade Math
I confess: I haven’t read Mr. Smith’s submission yet, specifically because I don’t want to get his brilliance all over my thought process.
When we started talking about gamifying 5th grade math, my thoughts quickly went to the idea of talent trees, something I have mentioned previously. Here’s an example of a partially completed paladin talent tree, from World of Warcraft.
For a 5th grade math curriculum, each level of the talent tree would consist of a bigger idea (I went with units from our sample scope and sequence), with each block on that level representing a particular skill or lesson from that unit. It looks something like this:
Let’s dive into how gamification makes this idea more than a poorly assembled PowerPoint image.
I have assigned each talent (the individual lessons) a value of five points. Each level (the units) is then worth the sum of all of its talent points. The value of points per talent is currently arbitrary; let’s keep things simple for this example.
The idea behind the points is relatively simple. In order to earn talent points, the student has to take a quiz. A five question quiz, in this case. If a student takes a quiz on “Factoring Numbers” and scores a 3/5, they earn three points in that talent.
This is how it comes together: students cannot progress to the next level until they have reached a minimum number of talent points in their current level. For a 20-point level, let’s say that minimum number is 14, a solid 70%. For a 15-point level, let’s say the minimum number is 11 points (73%), and 18 points for a 25-point level (72%).
What we’re saying is that C-level work is the bare minimum that we are willing to accept. If a student were to complete every level by doing the bare minimum they would graduate 5th grade math with a grade of 72%: 118 points out of 165. There may be a more ideal way to arrange the point distribution, but this works for now. Let’s get back to the idea of the quizzes, the class structure, and, ultimately, the gamification.
Ideally you would increase the number of points required to level up as the student progressed down the talent tree. This would require that students actually go back and revisit old quizzes. A 3/5 on “Factor Numbers” may have been good enough for the first few levels, but by the time a student is aiming for level seven, maybe they’re looking for a few extra points to push them over the requirement. If they retook the quiz and scored a 4/5, that’s one more point towards leveling up.
This is especially valuable with this point set-up. As it is now, a student could, technically, progress to level two without having even touched one of the level-one talents. A mechanism that brings students back to skipped or low-pointed talents reinforces learning and helps to illustrate how every talent is important to the over-all goal of learning math.
There’s an unspoken assumption here: we need to reevaluate how class time, homework, and quizzes work for this to be effective. Students need to be able to take quizzes whenever they like. More importantly, they need to be able to retake quizzes again and again and again.
In the math classroom this is relatively easy to enable. Each quiz is relatively small: five questions. Textbooks offer a large number of problems specifically dealing with each talent. If we assume that there are fifty textbook problems per lesson, the teacher has the raw material to create ten completely unique quizzes.
In fact, textbooks offer problems of varying difficulty, which would allow the teacher to create quizzes with one or two easy-difficulty questions, two or three medium-difficulty questions, and one or two very difficult questions. That means that, in order to earn the most talent points possible (and thereby display subject mastery) a student would have to answer more difficult questions: an idea that just makes sense.
This also solves a problem that I’ve often had with grading. Grading is a way of putting a framework around a student’s mastery of an idea. Why, then, shouldn’t a student be allowed to retake a quiz? If a student scores a 1/5 on a quiz that indicates that they haven’t learned something.
If the student then goes back and learns the content, subsequently scoring a 4/5 on a quiz, that indicates that they have learned something. Wonderful! But our current grading structure takes the average of those two quizzes, saying that the student earn only 5/10 points, displaying 50% mastery of the material, not the 80% indicated on their second quiz.
This proposed system only takes the student’s highest score. And herein lies an important bit of gamification.
As Jane McGonigal points out, we are happiest when we’re playing at the very edge of our ability. If you aren’t much of a gamer but have watched people play games, you’ve probably noticed a behavior that might have appeared puzzling, if not absurd. Gamers will replay a certain part of a game again and again and again. They will die, and they will try again. They will not get the result that they’re after, and they will try again. And they will continue to try until they get it right.
You see this all of the time with video games, but it is not limited to digital entertainment. Golfers exhibit this behavior all the time at a place called the driving range.
Failure and success are intertwined. The goal is to create environments in which students can fail quickly, understand why they failed, try something new, and work their way toward success. The ability to take these talent quizzes again and again, while only counting a student’s highest score, enables that learning.
By removing the consequences of traditional failure you teach students that experimentation is okay (if not necessary) and encourage them to take ownership of how they learn.
So now we have students taken talent quizzes whenever they like, which is a bit disruptive to traditional lecture-style class time. To make this work, the teacher would have to explore the idea of Flipped Teaching: viewing lectures and reading content are what students do at home; homework and tutoring are what students do in the classroom.
Students learn the basic mathematical concepts at home, on their own. They then work on practice problems with other students in the classroom, giving them instant access to subject matter experts (either fellow students who already understand a concept or the teacher).
Because of the constant quiz structure, practice problems become less about filling in the right answers and more about actually understanding the subject matter. There is no incentive to simply copy someone else’s homework if students completely understand that doing so will not help them pass their next quiz.
This has the added benefit of making practice problems seem less like busy work and more like the satisfying work that is a necessary component of gamification. A student who understands a concept after five math problems can take the quiz, prove that they understand the content, and move on to the next challenge. A student who needs more time doesn’t slow down the class or even get left behind; they can get help during class time to catch them up and keep them on track.
Student engagement is increased significantly by allowing students to move through the content at their own pace.
This has gone on longer than I had intended. I can’t help it; I get excited when I start to talk about how gamification can improve education. There is a lot more that we could talk about with this idea. We didn’t touch on achievements or motivations. We didn’t talk about how best to deliver this curriculum or remove some burden from the teacher.
The core of the idea, though, is strong:
- This idea provides satisfying work. Students get instant and continuous feedback on their learning process and can track their progression throughout the year.
- This idea provides the experience (or, at least, the hope) of being successful. Students can take talent quizzes as often as they like, experimenting with learning and content until they succeed.
- This idea provides a clear social connection for students. Practice problems are no longer done in a vacuum; they are completed in the company, and with the help, of their peers.
- This idea provides a sense of meaning. Students are building their math talent tree, leveling up their skills. Every piece of work they do matters, and has a clear effect on their progression.