Gamification in Education & Distant Reading Skills

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In the article, “Good Video Games and Good Learning,” James Paul Gee discusses the advantages of video games in learning certain cognitive skills and interpersonal, socialization skills. I found it interesting in the ways this article relates to the rise of gamification in education.

Challenge and learning are a large part of what makes good video games motivating and entertaining. Humans actually enjoy learning, though sometimes in school you would not know it. –Gee, 34

The main take away from the article is that games encourage development of identity, social interaction, risk taking, customized problem solving, agency, and utilization of situated meanings. When playing a game, a person takes on an identity and becomes committed to following a system of rules that allow the acting out of the character’s identity (34). In adapting this idea to the school setting, as teachers, we need to convince students that this same system applies to different subject areas in education. This taking on of certain skills and applying them relates also to ideas of genre and audience. So, in school the student can take on the identity of a test-taker, knowing that the grader has certain expectations, and follow the system of skills to reach the maximum score potential.

You must inhabit the identity that the game offers (be it Battle Mage or field biologist), and you have to discover what the rules are and how they can best be leveraged to accomplish goals. –Gee, 34

Customization is becoming an important feature in the classroom as demand for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and differentiated instruction increases.  In gaming, customization is manifested most clearly in the different difficulty levels in a game, but there are also features in many games that allow for different means of problem solving. Gee also suggests that curriculum should not only be customized based on student learning needs but also on the “learner’s interests, desires, and styles” (35). Gee importantly notes that all of these gaming principles create agency and ownership of actions (36). This is highly important, and sadly mostly missing, in education. This principle leads to higher engagement of the student in their learning and students can learn to become self-determined forming their own opinions about what interests them and what to take away from texts and topics discussed in the classroom.

I thought: Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex. As an educator, I realized that this was just the problem our schools face — how do you get someone to learn something long, hard, and complex, and yet still enjoy it? I became intrigued by the implications that good video games might have for learning in and out of schools –Gee, 34

Another benefit of games is that meaning is always situated visually. Gee uses the example: “consider ‘The coffee spilled, go get a mop’ versus ‘The coffee spilled, go get a broom’” (36). Contextually between the two examples we can see that the word coffee is being used differently; in the first sentence liquid coffee was spilled and in the second coffee grounds were spilled. I have experienced in tutoring in the reading comprehension areas that common words can be used in very specific contexts in academic reading, which causes confusion among students.

One way to help situate meaning in school is to include multiple text forms on the same topic, including a variety of genres, images, and videos. This idea of drawing on multiple sources relates to horizontal reading. The primary advantage of horizontal reading is that it allows a comparison between multiple accounts of an event.  This process can also be called distant reading, as it is technically the opposite of close reading, which focuses on one text to derive meaning.


Examples of Distant Reading

Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading explained in short video.

Distant Reading: Big Data + Old History (Irish Immigrants): Adam Crymble describes his thesis of using Distant reading methods for historical analysis of Irish Immigrants in 19th century London, England.



Gee, James Paul. “Good Video Games and Good Learning.” Originally published in Phi Kappa Forum 85:2 (2005 ) 33-37. Available



Growing Minds need a Place to Shine


There have been numerous research studies to examine how students are best dispositioned to retain the lessons they learn. It may come as no surprise that students learn best when they are engaged in their learning. The Learning Pyramid, developed by the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, shows that the traditional—passive—teaching methods (lecture, reading, demonstration) do not inspire a high level of retention among students. When students are engaged in active learning strategies—discussion, practice by doing, and teaching others—their learning retention rates increase to 50%, 75%, and 90% respectively.

So, what does this tell us about how we as teachers should develop lessons to engage our students in active learning?


My experience as a student observer in the Secondary Public school system has shown me that this model of active learning has been made a part of the core curriculum. I hear every teacher I encounter say to their students, “I won’t tell you the answer, I give you the tools to figure it out for yourself. Wont it be so much better when you make the discovery yourself and realize you had the tools within you all along? If you have difficulty then you can come see me, but I want to see your effort first.” Teachers are showing more faith in their students. It is important to not diminish a growing mind. You wouldn’t snuff-out a2566-flickering-light-from-a-candle flickering candle striving to stay lit, would you?

One assessment tool 7th and 8th grade teachers are using is a self-assessment student writing worksheet. Students are required to analyze their graded essays—beginning, middle, and end—to discover where they went wrong. Did they forget to introduce the text they are writing on? Do they need more detail from textual evidence? Does their conclusion present a well-developed thought that shows command of the given text?

It is truly fascinating and encouraging to see these young students reflect on their own work. I think self-assessments should become a common practice in all secondary education settings. A limit cannot be placed on human potential. If we can validate student success at every possible moment, we will encourage a body of youth that keeps striving to learn more. They will know the worth of each assignment and continue as reflective lifelong learners.

1363a825230067fb7cce099517389c22Some of the classes I observe also utilize a SMART BOARD. These classes are in the 7th grade.   During class discussion five or six students volunteer to lead the class in discussing an important theme or moment from the novel, in this case The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963. Each student taps the board to reveal the prompt to be discussed. Often the student jumps right in and gives a great analysis of the word or phrase displayed. Sometimes the roulette style of prompt-reveals causes a student to freeze and forget what they have read. In this case, the teacher encourages the student to pick a volunteer from the seated class to “bail them out” and continue this cooperative learning strategy. This active learning activity has already proven to be effective; the class average, among these 7th graders, for the first quiz on this material is 92%. I am so proud of these growing minds. All of their effort remaining engaged in class discussion has resulted in success.

This use of SMART board technology in the classroom gets the students excited about class discussion. As teachers we cannot undervalue that excitement. Our most important responsibility is to keep the students engaged. If we can accomplish this, the students will be ready to take the lead.


Spotlight on the Student

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I observed my first classes today and what I experienced—newsflash: many students are still bored—made me consider the following:

So what do we do about it? Can we even do anything to prevent students staring out the window? Some might say, short of having no windows, no; you can’t stop them. But maybe we can divert their attention back to class, by coaxing them into the spotlight.

It has become increasingly important to focus on the student as an individual. As teachers, it is our responsibility to get to know our students.  What do they know now? What should they know two months from now? What do they need to know before they move on to a new classroom?


This is known as the Zone of Proximal Development. It demonstrates the levels a student can reach without aid and where they can expand to with support. This form of assessment helps define the role of the teacher in a specific classroom.

As new teachers many of us might feel intimidated by the thought of testing our students’ ability. As a pre-service teacher beginning observation of Middle School students, I plan to absorb everything I can about successfully assessing students. Students don’t want to feel like they are always being tested, but it is essential to have their cooperation in this task. One useful assessment technique to use is a ticket out of the classroom. At the end of a lesson students are allowed time to write an example of what they learned in the lesson or if they are confused, they can write a question. This assessment provides the teacher with important data regarding whether or not the students understand what she/he is teaching.

The ticket out the door assessment is used in  “Seize the Data.”  The teacher learned that many of her students could not write a line of iambic pentameter even though they were exposed to many models prior to being set this task. This result reinforces the importance of assessment data in the classroom. It is important to remember, as new teachers, that we cannot be certain students understand a lesson until we see what they produce in relation to the topic. To be successful teachers we can’t fall victim to confirmation bias. We can’t simply make our students learn by sheer force of will either. So how do we teach? What models and scaffolds do we employ? We must evaluate the students, as a new teacher this is vital. We won’t know if the models work unless we assess them.

Now comes the ever important task of not piling the students with needless testing. We’ll need the students’ cooperation to make the assessments valid, so think outside the box and develop new, fun ways to gauge their understanding.

One way we can engage the students is to make the classroom a social enterprise. In this regard, one term to analyze is 21st century literacy ( sometimes referred to as new literacies). An Article published in the English Journal  explores different ways to make the classroom a collaborative, social experience. Technology and social media put the powers of collaboration at every students fingertips.

As teachers, our main task might simply be to prepare students for the future. YIKES!  With ever-expanding technology, we don’t even fully know what we might need to instruct. Well, in this case I say, don’t instruct (because you don’t know the answer). Instead, collaborate. Be a force that guides students to use the resources around them.  Don’t be afraid to learn alongside your students. Think back to high school, didn’t you always kind of hate that teacher that needed to be right all the time?

Open discussions. Say you are reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower with your class, why not bring it into the 21st century? Instead of a series of letters, imagine Charlie posted a series of Tweets. Ask the students: What might they contain? They’ll have to use the original text to find the most essential sentiments and reproduce them into the format of a tweet. Think about it, there is some high level literary work going on there. And hey, it’s a little bit fun to hear a teacher talk about twitter.  WATCH OUT, they just might learn something.