Games or “Gamification” in the Classroom?

This guest post is written by Justin Holbrook @JustinHolbrook, a 4th Grade Teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. Check out more of his information at the end of the post.

I fondly remember the games I used to play with my family as a little kid.  Legos with my mom.  Monopoly with all the money missing or thrown together into a “box”.  Stratomatic baseball tournaments with my dad on rainy afternoons.  Even 2-on-2 basketball with my little brother outside in any temperature for hours (We are still undefeated in the neighborhood!).  In all of these memories, time flew by like a race car.  As a 4th grade teacher, I try to recreate these experiences for my students because I recognize the emotional connection I forged with games as a kid and their power on students’ memories.  However, I think it is crucial that educators understand that there is a difference between relying on games and planning “gamification” in the classroom.

Game Blog #2

Games can be created for all subjects and topics.  Students can play cooperative games to review math facts.  A teacher can lead his or her class in a jeopardy review game.  Students can even play games on the immense amount of technology many schools now possess in the classroom.  With all these available options, a few advantages are consistent:

  1. Student Engagement – Games in the classroom creates a fun atmosphere and increases student engagement. Students are excited to play these activities as they incorporate movement, creative thinking, and social experiences.  As games are a great application activity for any skill, students are able to complete activities which promote application instead of repetitive seat work.
  2. Differentiation – Games provide a flexible structure to meet all the needs of students in a classroom. Educators can use the same game structure to teach different skills to diverse groups of students.  They also provide the opportunity for students to work independently while a teacher works with a small group of students on other leveled activities.  Furthermore, games can be used as a creative assessment tool and give instant feedback to students and teachers!
  3. Social Skills – Games involve teamwork and develop interpersonal skills. Competition is inevitable in many games, but these provide learning opportunities for students to strengthen their problem solving abilities.  In my school, we use the Peace Path as an accountable measure for students to express their feelings and solve problems independently.

Peace Path

Incorporating games in the classroom is a great instructional strategy however it cannot become an addiction.  In other words, there are a ton of games for every topic but games cannot become the sole instructional strategy teachers use with their students.  This is the main difference I find between games and “gamifying” instruction.  “Gamification” is the intentional creation and incorporation of skill-centered games with a clear purpose to address student achievement.  “Gamifying” activities involves planning with a specific academic objective and designing a game which is appropriate for the various levels of learners in the classroom.  It also combines other instructional strategies to address the same learning goal.  When I “gamify” my lesson activities I follow these steps:

  1. Establish a clear purpose for students. “We are playing this game today because we are working on…” or “We are playing this game to extend our knowledge from yesterday’s activity on…”.
  2. Model the game with students. Even use a script or language frames to model accountable talk.
  3. Praise positivity, problem solving, and hard work. This will promote collaboration rather than competition amongst students.
  4. Incorporate the pause button during gaming. Ask students to stop and evaluate their gameplay skills midway through an activity (i.e. Ask students to “think about their thinking” using a 1, 2, 3 finger sign where 1 is great, 2 is good, and 3 is needs improvement).
  5. Play the game yourself and have fun! Students will not only be excited and learn from you, but you will learn from them as well!
  6. Close the gaming activity with an evaluation of the academic skill and the game procedures. Sometimes students can tweak the steps to make it even better!

Remainders Wanted Game

While following these steps, educators need to be intentional with the combination of games and other activities they plan in the classroom.  Just as lessons and units are planned with the end goal in mind, games should follow the same proactive process.  Furthermore, incorporating student voice and choice in the “gamification” decisions is a great way to even further increase this intentional purpose.  A game by itself cannot be great without a teacher’s guidance.  Combining a great “gamified” activity with a great teacher is an incredible combination and can produce incredible results for students.

A huge thanks to the #BmoreEdchat PLN for their input and inspiration for this blog!

Connect with Justin and give feedback on his post! 

Justin Holbrook @justincholbrook 4th Grade Teacher
Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore City Schools, MD


Consider continuing the conversation on #BmoreEdchat. Justin founded and moderates this inspiring weekly Twitter edchat Wednesdays from 9-10 pm EST.