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How I turned my classroom into a ‘living video game’—and saw achievement soar

By Joli Barker
March 12th, 2013

In this innovative environment, students are active players in their own educational game.

The notion that struggling and failing is important to learning runs counter to traditional approaches to U.S. education. In fact, failure and its accompanying “F” grade stigmatizes a student as unprepared or “challenged” and is usually seen as a predictor of failure in future grades.

In the world of gaming, however, the very elements of struggle, challenge, and failure that discourage kids in the classroom become the primary drivers of engagement and achievement.

In 2011, after 14 years of teaching, I decided to transform my second grade classroom into a living video game. The inspiration for this was the book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. McGonigal’s message is that the monotony of classroom routines can be deadening to kids, that individuals are wired to need brain stimulation, and that even the most straightforward games can provide that.

How to keep the attention of students is an ongoing topic of conversation among educators. But as McGonigal points out, when they’re interested in something, kids demonstrate a powerful ability to maintain focus on even the most challenging tasks. Case in point: video games, which are so challenging that players fail 80 percent of the time—and yet are still motivated to persevere. If we can tap into even a fraction of this energy and enthusiasm, I thought, then we can effect the kind of educational transformation called for in the 21st century.

I began the transformation of my classroom by looking at the curriculum and writing storylines that would challenge students to solve science, technology, engineering, and math-related scenarios. For example, one such storyline under the reading content area is, “Explain how two given scientific conclusions are similar, and identify which of the scientists we’ve studied might have written these conclusions based on textual evidence.”  A math example storyline is, “How are fractions connected to the concept of multiplication?”

I use QR codes and augmented reality codes to help students move independently from one activity to the next. Kids use cell phones or tablets to scan the barcodes, which take them to websites or instruction pages with directions for the next activity, or to “cheat codes,” with strategies to help them solve the “boss-level problem.” I even decided to forgo the usual grading system in my classroom, so that as far as the students knew, they were either “Leveling Up!” (proficient) or they needed more practice with “Game Over: Try Again.” They stopped defining themselves by grades and saw “try again” as an opportunity to do just that.

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