Tag Archives: projectbased

My Gamification Journal: Part 1

Gamifying my 5th grade math course has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my teaching career. After two and a half years of introducing gamified elements, I am finding a number of benefits:

  • Students are learning by exploring
  • Their education programs are truly differentiated by content, pace, and path (which leads to higher engagement)
  • I spend less time performing rote/repetitive tasks such as grading and delivering canned lectures
  • I spend more time having meaningful interactions with my students
  • Students cover more content in the course and develop better mathematical reasoning skills
  • We have more class time for enrichment, such as games and projects

At this point, there are so many systems in place, that the gamified environment part of my class could almost function on its own. Most of my planning involves eliciting student feedback, involving parents in the process, making minor tweaks, and helping guide students in crafting their own creative content. As I’ve shared my process with other educators, through presentations and writings, I have come to see that providing a still photo of what my class looks like now doesn’t capture the experience in a way that’s easily reproducible. When I first started using Khan Academy, I could never have predicted how it would come to be used in my class. I decided a journal of my experience could demonstrate that a gamified classroom doesn’t come out of a box: it starts with a problem to be solved, it’s designed around the specific needs of each individual class, and it happens in baby steps with a lot of trial and error.

Step 1: A Problem to be Solved (Fall 2013)

I started my teaching career as a humanities teacher, and taught only English and history for the first 10 years I was in the classroom. three years ago I was asked to teach 5th grade math in addition to language arts. I attended the Summer Math & Science Workshop (Now held at The Fay School, but previously at Dana Hall), and in a course taught by Lainie Schuster got a glimpse of the potential to change how math was taught by focusing on games and activities that teach mathematical reasoning as a precursor to algorithms (shortcuts/processes).

Once I got into my classroom, I soon realized that the materials provided left me dangerously unprepared for the needs of my students: the 5th grade text began with decimal place value and operations, while a number of my students struggled with whole number place value and operations. The following unit centered on complicated word problems with volume and rate and time, and they assumed students had a solid grounding in fractions. As I got to know my students better, I realized that many lacked the ability to demonstrate the most basic operations (2+3 or 4-1) using manipulatives or diagrams, even though most could solve these using traditional algorithms.

Student performance on quizzes from the text was poor, and when I assigned worksheets or homework from the text, some students did great work, others turned in work that was incomplete or demonstrated poor understanding, and some turned in nothing at all. I would spend hours after each assignment correcting student work and struggling to understand the errors in their processes. Even when I could figure out the error, trying to remember which student made which error or to communicate improvements in writing was almost impossible. It took several months for me to develop an understanding of individual students’ conceptual understanding of math, and even then, I struggled to find the time to connect with each student to help them correct conceptual errors or provide differentiated material that was appropriately challenging.

Step 2: Research (December 2013)

I realized that the way I was teaching math was not efficient enough to meet the wide range of student needs in my classroom and that I was spending too much time performing activities that could probably be done better by a machine. I had used Google Apps for Education to promote collaboration in history and Language Arts classes, and I’d seen 1.0 style math games where students solve simple equations for points, but I was a relative newbie regarding cutting edge EdTech. I was looking for something that could adjust to student needs and report on progress to the teacher.  I figured either there was something out there that could automate much of the work I was doing and, if not, it needed to be built.

Math Blaster, a 1.0 style math game

I consulted my school’s director of technology, Aaron Grill, and he introduced me to some of the terms I was describing, such as “Teacher Dashboard,” and “Adaptive Learning,” as well as to a wesbite called Khan Academy. I’ve spent so much time using and talking about this platform in the past two years, I’ve had friends repeatedly ask me why I don’t work for Khan Academy, and I’ve even had students accuse me of being Sal Khan in disguise.

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Problem set from Khan Academy

I’ve learned the hard way not to introduce a platform to my classes until I feel comfortable as an end user – when I’ve tried to roll out programs based on marketing materials or online reviews (sadly, the line between the two can sometimes be blurry), I’ve encountered apps that were glitchy, hard to understand, or sometimes still under construction. Once I had played with Khan Academy for a few hours on my own, I knew this was the well-designed and responsive platform I was looking for.

Step 3: Roll- Out (January 2014)

Once I was confident that Khan Academy was the right tool to use with my students, the next step was getting them to use it. I started by creating classes and setting the grade level to grade 5. In class, I used Khan Academy’s search bar to find something related to what we were currently learning and used the projector to show the activity, ‘Ordering Fractions,’ to the class. We tried some practice problems, and I typed in the answers the students volunteered. I also demonstrated how they could access videos and hints when they needed support.

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Video suggestion sidebar

Then, I assigned the students 15 minutes of homework on Khan Academy that night. I chose to assign minutes rather than number of problems or even number of completed activities, for several reasons. First, I wanted to measure student effort – if students completed the same activities, some would finish much faster than others. Struggling students would struggle to meet basic expectations, while advanced students would breeze through. I wanted to ensure that each student was being challenged appropriately. If someone spent 15 minutes of genuine effort learning a new skill, but only got two questions right, I wanted to reward that as much as someone who spent 15 minutes getting everything right – since the platform is designed to give students work at their own level, the student who gets a lot of questions right will be rewarded by moving forward to more challenging content.

First Impressions

Right away, I realized that while I had solved some problems I was encountering in class, I had also created a whole new set of problems to be solved. While students had been challenged by the content of their textbooks, they (and their parents) were at least familiar with the format.

Once students were solving problems on their computers, they encountered new challenges. The largest issue I found was that when students wrote their answers on a piece of paper, they were more likely to write out the steps they took to solve the problem. When working on a computer, students tried to do more in their head, or they used the awful ‘scratchpad’ function built into Khan Academy.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about the specific instructions I gave students and parents to help make their use of the platform more effective. If I were to go back to the beginning, though, the biggest change I would make would be to have students spend several periods using the platform in class before asking students to complete anything at home – that way I could observe their work and give more feedback on their process before they were expected to use Khan independently.

Despite the challenges, there were enough initial benefits to using the adaptive learning platform that I decided it was worth working out the kinks. Although I was still learning how to read the data Khan was generating, even at the outset I could tell which students were putting in the right amount of time at home and which were not (some were even spending too much time!). Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 10.46.00 AM

I could also tell a great deal about their persistence and willingness to use resources. A student who gets one problem incorrect and moves to another activity requires a very different type of support from a student who tries the same problem 20 times and keeps getting it wrong, yet doesn’t use a hint or a video. I was always hoping to see the student who got a few right, a few wrong, took a hint or two, and then completed five in a row correct.

Next time, I’ll go over four more steps:

  • The process rules I instituted to help students use the platform effectively
  • How I used points to incentivize students and add excitement
  • How I learned to better read the data being generated and choose the right recommendations for my students.
  • How we went from using Khan Academy as an independent learning tool to part of a process of gamified learning in leveled groups

Your Impressions

Are you dying to add a gamified learning thread to your class but unsure where to begin? Are you deep into the process and have something to share? Do you think the whole gamification thing is a fad that’s past its peak? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


A Tale of Two Technologies

There are countless ways to think about the role of technology in the classroom. If you ask educators to define education technology or describe its benefits, you’d likely get as many answers as respondents. How can we be strategic and effective in using technology if we are not sure of why we are using it or considering what tool or strategy is most effective in reaching our goals?

Old School/New School

While there is no simple answer to these questions, I like to think about two divergent strands in education technology, which I’ll call the ‘Classical’ and the ‘Progressive.’ The former allows us to use technology to better accomplish the goals that schools have traditionally set out to accomplish, while the latter allows us to redefine and expand the expectations we have for our instruction and our students. While proponents of these two educational objectives can sometimes seem more polarized than red and blue states, there are good reasons to use technology for both.

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Can technology really foster progressive education?

To some, the idea of technology in the classroom conjures ideas of students sitting in their desks, eyes glazing over, as they complete hours of questions asking them to find the main idea of the last paragraph or to find the median value in a list of numbers. While it is possible for a poorly-implemented EdTech initiative to become a dystopian nightmare, it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Technology opens up new ways to employ project-based learning and collaboration in the classroom. Alice Keeler’s blog is a virtual library of tips and tricks for using Google Apps for Education to promote student-centered and collaborative learning. In “Transforming Learning through Student Content Creation,”  Adam Schoenbart explains how creating artifacts engages students in creativity and higher-order thinking. Applications such as Garage Band, Explain Everything, and iMovie allow students to create work that looks and feels almost professional, and there is a growing body of evidence that project-based learning increases student engagement and helps kids apply their learning to real-world situations.

So why not just let students learn through creating?

While progressive methods fill some needs that were not met through traditional education, it’s also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In “From Evidence to Great Teaching” Professor Robert Coe describes how student engagement, interest, and motivation are not reliable indicators that learning is actually taking place. PBLs can be conducive to learning, but not all project-based learning is created equally. Simply giving students some paper and markers (or an iPad to draw on) does not automatically mean students are learning academic skills, creativity, or collaboration. While we don’t want the focus of education to be on measuring and categorizing students, we can’t just close our eyes and hope for the best, nor can we completely disregard grade-level milestones for student skill development.

Using cold, hard technology to facilitate soft, fuzzy outcomes.

When a student is expected to learn skills or content that is outside of her comfort zone, the experience is painful. Whether our students are feeling frustrated and embarrassed at being overwhelmed, or they are bored of work that is not challenging, we owe it to them to alleviate this pain. We also have a responsibility to students and their families to help them understand whether the work they are doing is typical of a student their age. As much as we want to avoid labeling our students or telling a family that their child is not doing as well as his peers, if a student is below grade level in math or reading, we do them a disservice by not making them aware of the issue. Eventually, they are going to come up against some form of reality (SAT scores, school admissions, advanced courses), and they are better off finding out sooner than later so they can address the issue.

We can use technology to help us differentiate education in a way that has never before been possible. Benjamin Bloom conducted a famous study of the “2 Sigma Problem” which basically concluded that two educational techniques could drastically improve student outcomes. The first was mastery learning: students only moved on to more difficult concepts once they had mastered the foundational concept. The other was one-to-one instruction. The reason this was called a ‘problem’ was because there was no way to construct such an educational environment with one teacher and 30 students.

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Image of Khan Academy (from Graphite.org)


While we still can’t provide a tutor for every student, we can use online learning platforms to create a mastery path for each student. Online problem sets and data visualizations help teachers drill down to student strengths and needs on an almost miscroscopic level and to deliver individual assignments based on this data. Students can work on a skill for as long as they need to achieve mastery, and they can make use of hints and videos when they need help. Teacher-coaches can also use the data to identify when a student needs one-on-one support.

What do you think?

Do you agree that it is important to balance classical and progressive forms of education? Is technology the right tool to accomplish these educational objectives? Continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts in a comment.