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From the classroom: ‘Gamification’ keeps learning fun, fresh
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Emily Dixon, a fifth-grade teacher at McAllister Elementary, guides her students through a prehistoric jungle -- just one of the many ways she has brought “gamification” into her classroom. Photo provided.

Our world is constantly changing, adapting to the times, but is education following suit? Education has changed superficially, but not necessarily at the core.

When I relocated to Georgia, I was hired as a fifth-grade teacher after only teaching in a pre-K classroom. Life was throwing me a curveball in more ways than one. It wasn’t just the content that overwhelmed me.

Just imagine my surprise when it didn’t take long for me to notice that education had become stagnant and static. The pre-made lesson plans, the worksheets and the note-taking were drilling the content into my students’ brains, but at what cost? After two years of teaching this way, something had to give.

While I am still expected to teach standards, the way in which this is accomplished does not have to be in a “sit and get” environment. I finally asked myself: Can I change education at the core? Learning is supposed to be fun, dynamic, exciting, engaging and hands-on. This often happens in the early grades, but what happens when kids start to get older? This type of learning should not just take place in K-2 classrooms. The same types of learning experiences should be happening in grades K-12.

Why do we just assume that when kids get older, they no longer need to have memorable learning experiences where they build, create, explore, question and have fun? It has been unfortunate to witness discovery-based learning being abandoned for worksheets and note-taking.

Creative and innovative - that’s the direction educators should be going, because as Scott Hebert so bluntly states, “The education system is in an engagement crisis.”

In my first two years of teaching fifth grade, I saw that my students were going through the motions and relying on rote memorization. I was personally just trying to survive teaching how to divide fractions and the differences between a plant and animal cell. So in the spirit of full transparency, I was honestly in survival mode myself. Looking back on those two years, no one - myself included - was benefitting from my teaching practices. I decided that I wanted to make a difference.

When kids are bored, that’s when we see disengagement. Teachers are quick to blame this on the lack of resources, lack of time or just lack of student effort. Hebert mentions in his TED Talk that “the single biggest untapped resource are our students.” This couldn’t be closer to the truth. As educators, we ask everyone else what our kids need, except for them.

I realized that I needed to give my students a reason to care. We have to humanize school. We have to make kids believe that they are doing something for a reason, for a purpose. We need to give them a reason for needing to know the skill or content they are presented with.

How could I accomplish this in my classroom?

I decided to give them a mission, to make learning a game.

I decided to tap into some of my students’ interests and design lessons and learning experiences around them. In reality, kids can’t go deeper if they don’t have the background knowledge to become passionate and invested in what they are learning about.

This is when I started researching the concept of “gamification” in the classroom setting. Gamification is essentially taking the principles of game-design and plugging them into an environment where there is no game.

Think about this: Gamers are hyper-dedicated to what they do and games are littered with creativity. Why are video games so popular? As a gamer, you get to make choices, make decisions and take risks. I decided that I wanted to provide opportunities for this type of engagement in the classroom. There is nothing wrong with playing, because playing can be a learning opportunity. So I began investing in room transformations and lessons that promote creativity, ingenuity, passion and gaming.

In my class, students have navigated through a prehistoric jungle, popped water balloons on my head after learning vocabulary words, participated in fear factor activities where they stick their hands into a box of “intestines” or “eyeballs,” completed digital break outs, saved Christmas from the Grinch, become crime scene investigators, assumed the role of a passenger on the Titanic, and more.

Students complete these missions all while using their language arts, reading and writing skills they have learned in class. These types of activities, challenges and games eliminate rote memorization, encourage an application of learning and give them a reason and purpose for learning the content they are presented with.

Control leads to obedience, autonomy leads to engagement. I just want kids to care about learning.

Therefore, I would challenge educators to tackle teaching practices with a new lens and a new approach. If it’s right for kids, it’s right.

Dixon, a McAllister Elementary School teacher, is the Bryan County School District 2019-2020 teacher of the year.

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McAllister Elementary Student John Atilano conducts an experiment with teachers Emily Dixon, left, and Melissa James. It’s part of Dixon’s “gamified” approach to teaching and learning that gets kids enthused about school. Photo provided.
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