Education: From Greece, to Gove, to Gamification

A classroom scene from way backI have been thinking quite a bit about what has really changed in schools in the last few years – well actually since schools were invented. I went to a school in Harrow, but not Harrow School, which is famous for teaching a long line of public figures including several prime ministers. Harrow School was founded in 1572 and in those days (as indeed back to ancient Greece) education went like this:

  • someone (in high office) decided what facts children should learn
  • a special school (which came to be called a university) was set up to teach adults these facts so they could pass them on to the children
  • these people (who came to be called teachers) would stand at the front of the class
  • the children would sit at desks in rows facing the teacher
  • a means of displaying the facts would be put on a wall behind the teacher – this was called the blackboard
  • when there was no more room to display the facts, a rubbing device would erase some or all of the fact, so more could be put in their place
  • the rubbing device could also be thrown at a child to maintain control – a wooden stick was a useful backup device.
  • periodically the children would be required to show that they had remembered the facts. Occasionally just some of the facts had to be regurgitated – this was called a test. At other times all the facts had to be seen to be remembered – this was called an examination.
  • if you passed examinations, you were entitled to rise higher in the system. If you failed, you remained at that level, almost certainly for the rest of your life (unless your family had money).
A modern classroomIt’s now well over 500 years since Harrow School received its charter. 500 years in which we have moved from the horse to the jumbo jet, the abacus to the computer, the dagger to the hydrogen bomb, astrology to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry … So it won’t come as any surprise to see just how far we have moved in education, which now looks something like this:
  • someone (in high office) decides what facts children should learn
  • special schools (called a teacher training colleges) have been set up to teach adults these facts so they could pass them on to the children
  • these people (still called teachers) stand at the front of the class
  • the children sit at desks in rows facing the teacher
  • a means of displaying the facts is put on a wall behind the teacher – this is called the whiteboard
  • when there is no more room to display the facts, a rubbing device can erase some or all of the fact, so more can be put in their place
  • the rubbing device (and cane) are no longer available (health and safety reasons) for maintaining order – this enabled the invention of the electronic whiteboard
  • periodically the children are required to show that they had remembered the facts. Occasionally just some of the facts have to be regurgitated – these are called SATS. At other times all the facts have to be shown to be remembered – these are still called examinations.
  • if you pass examinations, you are entitled to rise higher in the system. If you fail, you remain at that level, almost certainly for the rest of your life (unless your family have money).
Of course, many of you will be saying hang on a sec – we have moved on hugely. What about the multiple choice question? What about the academy school? And anyway, back in the old days, it was probably some imbecile in high office who decided which facts should be learnt. In these enlightened days of the 21st century, we have Michael Gove.
But enough of the cynicism. I really wanted to talk about gamification. But when it comes to talking about it in education, many people don’t seem to get it. They think – let’s make some computer games that can be played during the lessons. First, this is not what it is about, and second, youngsters brought up playing sophisticated games don’t find the games that the teachers use  terribly good. I see gamification working at a higher level and I was impressed by a couple of videos I  just watched by Penny Arcade Gamification / Gamifying Education (some of their other stuff looks interesting). In the second episode they make these key points:
  • with a grading system every students starts by thinking they are an A+ – from there, the only way is down
  • with a games system, you give experience points, so everyone is working their way up
  • there are opportunities for collaboration – bonus point for all students if some do well – gives an incentive to support the high achievers
  • but could also design topics to enable  the more able to help those doing less well – such that one only goes on to the next “level” when all the students have “made it”
  • a sense of “agency” – feeling that you have control over your own destiny – that your choices matter
  • agency is a scale – the more you have, the more likely you are to succeed, the less likely are you to be put off by failures.
  • agency can be improved by playing games. In games, direction can be clear – you try things and fail, then start all over again until you get there
  • external motivators and how the playing of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) encourage learning – best if cross-disciplinary, designed not to be specific to one type of person only
So apply gamification and what …? The original idea of this blog was to introduce the ideas and then feed it back into the initial bullet points with profound effects. The trouble is, I don’t think it can be done. Gamification is an interesting and useful tool, but perhaps more importantly, when you think about applying it, you start to realise what is wrong elsewhere, so apologies, my new set of bullets are some thoughts
  • Gove Who decides what facts children should learn? Rather than answer that directly, I would pose another question: what skills/qualities should a young adult have? Maybe those of curiosity, being articulate, how to have good relationships, how to be a team player, how to survive difficult times. Perhaps the only key skills that are needed in the first instance are “bootstrap” skills – to speak, to read and write, and how to find things out. Then rather than have someone else decide what is learnt, allow children to learn what they want albeit in a guided way.
  • Teacher training So goodbye teachers, hello guides. Good guiding practises will be developed over time. These may be disseminated at guide camps, and on web sites. And of course, they are skill that will be picked up and practised by children at they guide and get guided.
  • Front of class Guides can mingle/sit with groups of students. Guides can be the students themselves, and because they become proficient at guiding, they are able to carry on doing this throughout their lives (even if it is not their main profession).
  • Back of class There is now no absolute need for a desk, or even a classroom. Children can work in smaller groups, and this could be in a library, museum, a workplace, a beach …
  • Blackboard/whiteboard A £3000 whiteboard can be replaced by 15 computer tablets – there should be one per child, and children should not be firewalled from the internet – they must  find out how to use it responsibly.
  • Rubbing device there is no modern equivalent for this – instead of erasing, think bookmarking. The ability to retrieve things you’ve seen/like/want to pass on are, imho, key skills
  • Exams ok, this is the one big area where gamification plays an important part. Reasons mentioned above – summary: completion of “levels” before moving on. Some means needed to make sure that “progress” is being made by all – leader boards – then pay more attention to those that are at the lower end.
  • Pass or fail now, no need for cut-offs at certain ages. The system become more seamless between child/student/graduate/worker. Less boundaries between learning skills/practical skills/artistic endeavours.
This is the personal view of Richard Vahrman, and may not necessarily be the view of DEB or any of its members. It may not even be the view of Richard Vahrman in the future, as this is part of a series of unfolding thoughts.