Gamification 101: Training Camp Part II

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When I think back to my process for gamifying my Physics class last year, it felt a little like the journey a coach goes through while preparing for that first game of the season. The planning and execution phases can easily be divided into training camp, designing the playbook, pre-game pep-talk, the season opener, and finally reviewing tape.  In this post I will discuss my approach to training camp. 

I am a die hard Cowboys fan in case you couldn't tell from the picture at the beginning of this post.  While searching for an appropriate image for training camp, I happened upon this headline from

Cowboys May Use Center Who Never Snapped

This resonated with me as I was by no means a gamer when I decided to explore this option in my class.  I had played my share of Angry Birds, but that was about it unless you counted my brief pre-teen encounters with Space Invaders, Pac Man and the occasional game of Frogger.  Once I discovered boys, I tried to forget that Atari and parachute pants were ever part of my vernacular. 

I wouldn't even consider myself a casual gamer.  Last year, while the idea of gamification was percolating in my brain, I taught across the hall from a true gamer who was completely immersed in gamifying homework practices in his class. I called him Crazy Train as the ride he was on was borderline obsessive and insane (or so I thought at the time).  I frequently caught myself checking to make sure the coast was clear before leaving my room in an effort to avoid interactions with him because every conversation was ultimately dominated by his overwhelming excitement over things like avatars, subeconomies, level-ups, warp zones, and other gamer terms that sounded a lot like Chinese to me.

Fortunately, for me, I soon discovered that you do not need to be a gamer to gamify your content.  That is what training camp is all about.  For the non-gamers out there that are looking for a way to make your classes more engaging and fun, this is a good place to start.  As a bonus, gamification will also help the learning stick. 

Step 1:  Play Games...Actively

To get started you simply need to play some games.  Pick something easy and manageable at first, like Angry Birds.  Approach your game play with the same strategies that you advise your students to use when "actively" reading an article or chapter in a book.  Be an active, reflective participant in your game play. 

While playing, ask yourself the following questions and take note of your responses:

  • What emotions did you feel throughout the game play and how did you respond?
  • What made you want to continue playing?  
  • Was there only one way move to the next level, or did you have choice in your journey?  
  • What happened when you made mistakes and how did you feel?  
  • Did you feel like you were in control?  
  • What kind of feedback did you get, and how often?  
  • How did the feedback affect your play?  
  • What elements of the game helped you to maintain your focus?
  • What was your reaction to failure?  How was this different to other experiences you have had with failure? 
  • What role did game mechanics play in your experience?  What role did the fictional story line play in your experience?  (If you are not familiar with these terms, read through the references to these in my previous post.) 
  • What learning was required of you to be successful in the game? 

Now compare your experience to the experience that your students have while participating in one of your lessons.  How are they similar?  How are they different? 

Step 2: Do a Little Research

There are three books that I have found helpful in designing my game.  

  1. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and   Strategies for Training and Education
  2. Designing Games:  A Guide to Engineering Experiences 
  3. Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps

There is also great value in reading blogs about gamification.  Once you discover a blogger that has a passion for gamification, check out the bloggers that are linked to his/her blog.  This is a hot topic at the moment, so a simple search should send you in the right direction.  A few that I would highly recommend at the moment are: 

You should also follow these people on Twitter if you are a Tweep:

Finally, if you are really keen, Kevin Werbach from U. Penn offers a course on Coursera about Gamification.  He doesn't have one going at the moment, but you can add yourself to the watchlist and Coursera will inform about the next start date.  You can also contact him personally on Twitter

Step 3: Discuss Your Ideas with Colleagues

After doing a bit of research, I was ready to jump on the Crazy Train myself (metaphorically speaking).  It was truly great to have him as a resource throughout this process. If there are other teachers interested in gamification at your school or district, form a group to discuss strategies with each other. Two minds (or three or four) are always better than one.  If you are flying solo, revert back to my Twitter suggestion.  There are so many people out there who would love to discuss this topic with you.  Just search using the hashtags #gamification or #gamify, find someone who is tweeting about relevant experiences and then engage them in a dialogue, or reach out to one of the handles posted above.  You can also send questions to me at

As we head into summer vacation, this is the perfect time to start exploring gamification while you are not immersed in the day to day grind of being a teacher. Gamifying your content takes time.  Start small and give it a go!  In my next post I will discuss designing your playbook.  Until then, happy training! 

Knowledgeable Networker Part II: It Takes One to Know One

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The other day, a colleague of mine asked me how to insert a hyperlink with text into a Google spreadsheet.  I remembered doing this once before, but I had forgotten how to do it because I don't practice it on a regular basis.  I immediately searched for a solution and within 30 seconds, I solved her problem. In case you are wondering, you simply enter the following code:  =HYPERLINK ("URL","visible text"). Though I instinctively search out a solution on the Internet when I don't know the answer to something, I am not confident that this is everyone's instinct.  In fact I suspect that many people would give up on finding an answer before venturing down that rabbit hole.

My IB students just completed their photosynthesis design labs.  Since they have to take a minimum of five trials for each of their five independent variables, there is no way that they could have used one probe for all of their trials due to the time investment that would require.  As a result most of them ended up with data that was not aligned because the different probes were calibrated to a different starting point.  In order to take the mean and standard deviation of their five trials, they first have to calculate the cumulative change in their data.  As surprising as this might be, this is not instinctive for most students :-)  So today a student asked me how to do this on Excel.  After I explained the method to the class, Shiva the Destroyer had a look of exasperation on his face.  When I asked him if he was confused, he confessed that he had individually calculated each and every cell of his data rather than using the Excel functions to program a couple of cells and then dragging through the rest of his column.  Now, I don't know how many of you have used Vernier probes to collect data before, but imagine 25 trials with data points collected every 15 seconds for 10-20 minutes.  He might as well have just used a single probe to collect his data!  Just a few weeks ago, I posted about how resourceful Shiva was at finding information on the Internet.  Yet, when he encountered an issue with Excel, he did not think to use that same skill to solve his problem.  Nor did he think to come and ask me for a solution.  There are two other pieces of information that you need to consider when you reflect on this.  Shiva is taking two higher level science courses, and this was at least the third design lab in biology that we have done in a year and a half where he has had to process his data in this manner.  He had been shown this method before as had the rest of my students.

What are my takeaways? 

  1. We as teachers in the 21st century need to be knowledgeable networkers.  If you are not sure what this is, check out the links in my previous post, Old Habits...Don't Seem to Die.  If you rely on textbooks for the majority of your information, how will you prepare your students for what awaits them once they graduate?  Check out this provocative video called Infowhelm and Information Fluency.
  2. I am responsible for the fact that my students did not remember how to process their data using Excel.  Practicing this skill on three isolated assessments over a year and a half was not sufficient to make this stick.  However, in this day and age, that is not my failure.  My failure is that they did not take the initiative to find a solution to their problem on their own.
  3. It is not good enough to just model these practices.  We need to embed these skills into our lessons across disciplines on a regular basis so that our kids can not only practice these skills but also transfer them to new situations. 

On a positive note, Shiva did redeem himself.  I posted a link to Kottke's blog on our Facebook group and asked the kids to identify the specific enzymes used to produce the sugars mentioned.  The Destroyer had an answer for me within minutes.  :-)

Oh, and if you are ever wondering how to customize error bars using the 2008 version of Excel for a Mac, here is a video tutorial for you :-) 

Steal Like an Artist

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

This quote by Albert Einstein reminded me of a book that I read last year called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. If you haven't read it, stop reading this right now, and order yourself a copy.  This book was like absolution for all of the amazing activities, ideas, and lessons that I have "borrowed" over the years and adopted as my own after infusing them with my own signature flare. 

In his book, Kleon compares good theft to bad theft. Good theft is to honor another person's work rather than to degrade it (check).  Good theft is to steal from many rather than just one (check).  Good theft is to transform a piece of work rather than to just imitate it; remix rather than rip off (check, check). 

In Kleon's list entitled, "10 things nobody told you about being creative", he states that the secret is to do good work and share it with people.  The purpose of this blog is to do just that.  I guess you could call it my penance for all of the good theft I have committed in my life as a career criminal/teacher.  Can you tell I was raised in a Catholic family?

As promised in my last post, I wanted to share a great meiosis activity that I stole years ago from an anonymous source and made my own.  I later discovered that a man named Harry Wong designed it originally, so thank you Harry!  It is called, "Homologous Shoes". 

On the day that I teach meiosis to my students, I make them take off their shoes and carelessly throw them in a designated area.  I then carry on with my lesson for the day acting like nothing happened.  When we get around to discussing prophase I of meiosis, I gather all of my students around the "nucleus" and we look at our two "sets of chromosomes" otherwise known as their left and right shoes randomly dispersed.  Each pair of shoes represents a homologous pair.  Though they are similar enough to be distinguished from all other pairs of shoes, they are not identical (left vs. right etc.). 
We then begin synopsis. Each student is instructed to pick up the first shoe that they encounter that belongs to them with their left hand and the second shoe they encounter with their right hand.  This helps to set us up for independent assortment in metaphase I.  They then hold their shoes together in the form of a bivalent/ tetrad and we discuss chiasma formation and crossing over.  I then have them line their shoes up along the "metaphase plate" and we make observations about their arrangement.  I then ask them questions like, "If we were to start this activity over, what are the chances that the shoes would line up exactly like this a second time?".  We then carry out anaphase I and segregate our alleles forming two distinctly different haploid nuclei. 
At this point, I tell them that the smell has become so overwhelming that we will have to find a different strategy to learn about the second division of meiosis, and we switch focus. By combining the visual metaphor with the active manipulation of "chromosomes", this activity helps students to both understand and remember the unique events in meiosis that contribute to variation in a species, namely crossing over, independent assortment, and segregation of alleles.   

Out of curiosity, I Googled this activity to see just how different my activity was from its original design.  See for yourself, and thanks again Harry for doing good work and sharing it so that my students could benefit from OUR collective creativity year after year.  After all, "Nothing is original." (Austin Kleon and countless others).

To GMO or not to GMO? That is the question.

Yesterday, I came across this image in my Facebook feed.

My 12th grade IB students recently completed their unit on biotechnology, including genetically modified organisms.  So I decided to post this image on our Facebook group with the question, "Thoughts? This is clearly a con, what about the pros? Good time to review your GMO for biotech. Can someone tell me why the bees are dying in response to GM crops?"  23 comments later (on a Saturday night of a four day weekend mind you) two key articles jumped out at me.  The first, a letter to the USDA asking them not to deregulate GMO alfalfa due to its potential harm to the environment, and the second, an article in the Wall Street Journal that touts the benefits of GM crops and insists on the proliferation of GMO particularly in developing countries like India. 

I digress but as a faculty we have been discussing ways to infuse information fluency across grade levels and disciplines as part of our 21st century skills initiative.  This is a perfect example of why it is crucial for our students to develop this skill.  First, consider the source.  The first article comes from the GMO Journal, a liberal journal clearly against genetically modified anything.   The second article comes from the Wall Street Journal, one that refers to the monetary benefits of GMO first and foremost.  These two articles contradict each other on many fronts.  When you do a Google search for GMO + honey bees, the first page of links are all anti-GMO.  Ironically, if you do a Google search of the benefits of GMO, you will come up with a page with headings like, "Harmful or helpful?", "Risks and Benefits of...",  and "Weighing the GMO argument". 

Though clearly a cautionary tale, the problem is that there is not sufficient scientific evidence to PROVE that GMO crops are a SIGNIFICANT health risk to the honey bees or humans for that matter (the direct link has not been shown as there are too many other variables at play).  This lack of evidence could be attributed to insufficient funding for research, the lack of available data on long term impact of GMO (time sensitive), or to the big pockets of pro GMO lobbyists such as Monsanto (who by the way funded the research study quoted in the Wall Street Journal), which divert spending away from this issue among other things.  Regardless, we have to wonder if the use of genetically modified organisms warrants the invoking of the precautionary principle (also an IB topic...SCORE!). 

The article from the Yucatan Times that accompanied the image on Facebook posed this as a possibility: 

In this regard, Rosset said that since Mexico is a country that consumes more  corn than any other country, and because of the risks that have been observed in several studies for years, recommended that Mexico does not expose the public to GM Maize. He said the risk is greater for children who will be most affected. He considers it urgent to apply the precautionary principle, and cancel the transgenic, for future generations.

This brings us back to our original question, "To GMO or not to GMO?".  I am going to let my students answer this question as this provides me with great fodder for an authentic exploration in information fluency, not to mention a lively discussion in class! Whenever there are grey areas in science and there is money to be made, politics will come through for us science teachers without fail!  Just remember to consider your source.  Sometimes it is not as easy as you might think! 

The assignment that I created based on these articles can be found under the IB Biology Lessons tab at this link.