In the Middle School, a fun new educational tool is literally changing the game on how to make the classroom a more engaging place.
When George Morganis landed a job last year as a faculty member at King’s Academy, he found a school that echoed his passion to make the classroom a more fun and engaging learning space. Over the summer, Morganis had some time to prepare for his 7th Grade humanities class and — after getting the green light — an idea that had been brewing in his mind for a while began to take shape. This year, when a fresh crop of 12- and 13-year-olds walked into his classroom, they would also be walking into an alternate universe of warriors and mages, battles and quests. They would be walking into the world of Classcraft.
Classcraft is an Engagement Management System (EMS) for educators looking to increase engagement in their classrooms. The similarity of its name to the wildly popular video game World of Warcraft is no accident. It is based on the concept of gamification: bringing a video game element into the classroom to ‘gamify’ learning. Playing in teams, students choose and design individual characters from three unique classes (warrior, mage, healer), each of which come with their own health, ability points and powers.
“Game designers have unlocked a secret that teachers maybe haven’t realized yet,” says Morganis. “Games are challenging but also incredibly engaging, and kids constantly go back and keep trying. That begs the question, how can we get that level of engagement and commitment in our own classrooms? That’s where the concept of taking what works in video games and interweaving it into the classroom experience comes in.”
“Gamification is really an attempt to introduce good habits for students,” continues Morganis. “When you don’t have grades, you need buy-in with kids. If they don’t do their homework, I’m not going to fail them, so there needs to be some desire to do well.”
Engagement management systems such as Classcraft aim to impact educational outcomes that are key to students’ success, such as academic performance, classroom behaviour, social and emotional learning, school climate, as well as attendance and student motivation.
The response from his 7th graders has been great so far, according to Morganis. He believes the key is relating to kids’ experiences and tying that to course matter. As most kids play video games, they understand the rules in gaming and enjoy playing them. So, translating that to a classroom setting, when students do positive things such as handing their homework in on time, their characters level up. Once they reach a certain level they start unlocking powers.
“They’ve bought into it,” says Morganis, who is also known as Head Warlock by his class. “They are always asking me if I’ve awarded them XP (points) for their homework assignment yet.”
However, if an individual ‘falls in battle’ (is disruptive in class, for example), then the student will ‘lose health’ and the Head Warlock will ‘pass sentence’ on them. This might range from paying someone a compliment, to busing their advisory lunch table all week, to writing an essay about why they keep falling in battle, or doing an extra homework assignment. Another aspect to the game is its group dynamic. Because students are put into teams, if one student falls in battle then the whole team might lose health. Therefore, students feel pressure to do the best for their team.
There is also parental buy-in. Parents are given an account on Classcraft where they can follow their children’s progress. This gives parents an insight into what is going on, and with parental buy-in, student engagement increases because they know their parents are playing along too.
There are real-life, in-class benefits too, Morganis explains. “You can teleport. Mages can step outside the class for two minutes, no questions asked. You can get an extra day to do a homework assignment. The most powerful reward is your entire team skipping a homework assignment.”
Based on their classwork, Morganis designs quests for the students, with different goals and checkpoints that they have to reach. Some quests are completed individually, while others are completed as a group. To keep things interesting the game throws in things called ‘boss battles’ and ‘random events.’
“One random event is ‘talk like a pirate day’,” laughs Morganis. “The whole class must refer to me as captain and speak with a pirate accent. It’s hammy, but it’s Middle School! You have to make things fun.”
Morganis describes humanities as a little like social studies, with a bit of English, history, philosophy, and some real-world applications rolled into one class. The curriculum revolves around cities at specific time periods, places undergoing change or solving problems. This year they have covered New York City dealing with immigration circa 1910, King’s Academy and culture creation in 2007, the French Revolution in 1789, and Manchester during the 19th Century industrial revolution. The goal is for students to understand the problems of the past.
“I’d like to think it is aligned with His Majesty’s vision of helping students of today solve the problems of tomorrow.”
As humanities is a new and sometimes difficult subject for students, Morganis tries to make his class as active as possible, and gamification is just one way of keeping it fun, along with providing ample opportunities for students to create and perform. While students know what subjects they will be taking, they have no idea what the activities will be.
“It’s designed to be exciting,” says Morganis. “They may take on the role of different characters during the French Revolution and have to interview each other as though they were on television. It’s hands-on, it’s engaging, it’s very interesting.”
Morganis’ goal is to create a personalized learning experience for his students, and to achieve that his classroom is designed to be student-centered. He doesn’t want to stand at the front of the class and do all the talking while students sit in rows and listen. Many of his assignments are group-based, in addition to individual work and student choice. As the Middle School does not use the traditional grading system — they follow the standards mastery approach based on students demonstrating understanding of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn — he has goals and markers to help him gauge how his students are progressing, but they are also responsible for their own progress.
“It is the student’s responsibility to get things done by a certain date. They work at their own pace, but they know if they are behind they have to catch up.”
This is where gamification helps keep students on track while making things fun. It rewards progress towards standards mastery.
“With Middle Schoolers you have to do things a little bit differently,” says Morganis. “I’m trying to instill good habits. I’m more concerned with them putting in a great effort. If I can hand over my 7th graders to 8th and 9th grade and they can do their homework every night on time and engage the material in class, then I’m happy.”