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on Leading the Next Generation


How to Gamify Any Classroom or Training Event

There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the idea of using “gaming” to teach in the classroom. Some faculty members believe it’s nonsense—that all we’re doing when we “gamify” our pedagogy is caving in to the whimsical wishes of an adolescent. They maintain that it encourages the desire to play instead of work in a child, and the end result is actually dumbing down education. After all, we do need to instill a work ethic in kids, don’t we?

However, is it possible that their standpoint could be wrong about this?

Let me illustrate. When I was a kid, Kodak was the leading camera and film company in America. If you took pictures, you likely used Kodak cameras, film and their developing process to get the job done. Back in the 1990s, Kodak employees met with executives and proposed the idea of creating digital cameras. It was the future of photography, they suggested. But, alas, the idea seemed crazy to Kodak CEO George Fisher. They were on the leading edge of the industry—so he obviously knew best.

Today, I bet he regrets turning the idea down. Kodak’s hesitancy to buy into a new way of offering their goods and services cost them their market share. In fact, today Kodak is bankrupt.

Could educators be in that same situation? Might we be so sure of our methods, learned when we were in school from older adults, that we’re missing some obvious shifts in culture today? Did you know that an increasing percentage of kids today prefer video games and on-line gaming than participating in traditional recreational pastimes? Did you know that 40,000 young people watched a gaming competition in a stadium in South Korea? Yes, I said they watched. In fact, more kids watched that contest than attended any of the NBA championship games last year. Top video game players are household names. The global revenue for games is $20 billion higher than the music industry. Gaming is now the leading hobby for American children—who will soon enter your class.

What Makes Gaming Work?

So, I set out to explore what makes gaming work. Why is it that so many students engage in this past time, and how can we redeem it for educational purposes? It didn’t take long to notice that the content varies, but the components are timeless. By this I mean that the content can be destructive, neutral or constructive. That’s up to us, the leaders and educators. The components for delivery are what attract users. Let’s take a look at how anyone can gamify his or her classroom or training.

  1. Competition

Let’s face it. Most humans, especially young ones, love to compete. We want to try our hand at a game to see how we compare to a peer. Gaming allows kids to do this. Whether it’s a computer or tablet screen or a live game face to face, this raises the engagement in a subject. Regardless of the topic, kids want to win.

My question: How do you put this to work as you build life skills?

  1. Scoring and Progress

A second cousin to the first component, scoring enables a student to see their progress. Life becomes tedious at best and depressing at worst when people don’t see growth and progress. No one likes to remain stagnant. When students get to score on an action or idea, they get a dopamine squirt and interest remains high.

My question: How do you capitalize on this to cultivate ambition?

  1. Interaction

We are teaching the most interactive generation in modern history. Technology has enabled them to constantly socialize, get feedback and communicate. Russian psychology teaches us that we learn best in community—and gaming empowers that community. It can even foster collaboration.

My question: How do you leverage this to build soft skills?

  1. Meaning to the Points

When you play a video game or on-line game, the points determine what the players believe to be important. In other words, the game rewards the highest priority. The points, in fact, are a sort of report card for the game. In the same way, educators can apply this reality by assigning meaning to the desired outcomes.

My question: How do you provide meaning to the students’most important actions?

  1. Sources of Motivation

Finally, when a student is gaming, they realize they can be motivated in different ways. They might be inspired to simply beat others who are playing the same game, beat a high score, or they can be motivated by beating the level they are on, moving them to the next level. It simulates life. You can improve by looking inside or out.

My question: How do we leverage the right source of motivation for maturation?

A Case Study

Kate Fanelli teaches math class for at-risk students in Canton, Michigan. She faced the same problems most math teachers do, especially with Special Ed students:

“Lecturing wasn’t working for me. I would give a 20-minute lesson in class. I would use overheads, call on students to answer questions, get students to come up to the board and solve problems. Then I would hand out the worksheets. The next thing I know, every hand has gone up. No-one was listening to me and none of the students have any idea what they are supposed to be doing.”

So, she transformed her math class into a gaming station. She calls it MathLand. At its most basic level, MathLand has two components. The first is an organizational structure for the curriculum. MathLand’s structure is premised on gaming levels, while the Common Core State Standards for high-school math curriculum are sorted into topics. Fanelli simply takes the topics and subdivides them into levels. Students earn credit for mastering a level. Her current version has 20 levels, and the students are actually learning and enjoying math. Hmmm. Sounds like progress to me.

How could you include gaming to engage your students?


  1. Erin Brown on March 16, 2016 at 7:25 am

    We are in our fifth year of home educating our two kids (10 & 12 years old). Changing to Khan Academy for math has been an excellent gamifying experience. I could tell my kids were bored and not connecting with their workbook style math. KA math gives them points and avatars and perks for mastering skills much like the example you wrote about above. It has changed my son’s motivation for math from daily frustration and anger to pure joy and self-discipline. This may sound like a commercial for Khan Academy but it’s also definitely an big nod to your post and understanding of gamifying education.

    • Tim Elmore on March 17, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      Thank you for leading your kids well, Erin. I highly respect the work of Khan Academy. Our National Leadership Forum featured one of its leaders, Dr. Rishi Desai, as a keynote speaker and it was fascinating to learn how Khan Academy approaches teaching.

  2. Nicki Drinane on March 31, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    What student doesn’t love to get “stuff” for working hard. When I was in school it was the scratch and sniff sticker at the top of the page. As educators, we need to take our teaching to the level where our students are and use what they enjoy the most. Its alright to step out of the box and be different. Different can be successful but we need to try first instead of saying it won’t work.

  3. Linnh Hanu on June 15, 2016 at 5:08 am

    thanks for posting and sharing this great article. It’s so interesting and useful. I wish know more information about this article.

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How to Gamify Any Classroom or Training Event