Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Gamification – The Hottest New Trend to Monetize Education by Steven Singer

When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was my jam.

After school, I couldn’t wait to take on the role of plucky plumber Mario or his brother Luigi. I’d jump on a few turtle shells, bounce over a bottomless pit and smash just the right secret brick to get my flashing star power up and wipe the floor with endless levels of Koopa Troopas.

But through it all, I never really learned anything.

With the possible exception of a few Italian stereotypes, the only knowledge I gained was where the warp zones were, which blocks to hit and the muscle memory necessary to defeat the next bad guy.

However, now-a-days that’s all changed.

Someone in marketing and accounting has decided that the same techniques I used to save Princess Toadstool would make an exceptional method of pedagogy.

They call it gamification, the process of making academic lessons, courses and objectives look more like video games.

Sure, the process has applications in the business world and advertising, but its biggest market has been education.

Want to teach grammar? Welcome to the good ship Verb sailing on the seas of Nouns and Pronouns. Interjections, A-hoy!

Wish your students knew fractions? Let them blast away the wrong numbers so only the correct numerator matches with the correct denominator.

That kind of thing.

It’s incredibly popular in some circles.

Advocates claim it increases student engagement and enthusiasm, provides instant feedback and the opportunity for social interactions.

Critics say it reduces students’ attention spans, narrows the curriculum and replaces human interaction with canned interfaces.

But when something is bringing in this kind of cash for big business, it’s kind of beside the point whether it works or not.

It’s the latest form of snake oil out of the cobra factory, and your teacher may be forced to pour it into your children’s brains.

That’s just Education 2018. Under the old model, the hucksters would have to approach each teacher one-at-a-time and convince them to try the shinny new toy in the box. But when you remove teacher autonomy, that frees all the used car salesmen to go right to the one person in your district – often the technology coordinator or academic coach – who controls the purse strings and convince him or her to buy what they’re selling.

In short, I’m not a fan.

Don’t get me wrong.

My students love reviewing already mastered material in teams or competing against each other individually.

But there’s a big difference between playing Jeopardy or Kahoot with soon-to-be-tested material and plopping kids on an app or software package that pretends to teach them the concept.
There’s a world of difference between a 10-minute detour and an entire curriculum structured around game theory.

The biggest problem seems to be this.

Games are not intrinsically valuable.

They are good or bad based on the amount of fun they provide the user.

Be honest. No one really cares if Link puts together the Tri-force. No one is losing any sleep over rampaging Metroids on the loose. No one is putting out an Amber Alert the next time Princess Peach is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser. The only thing that matters is if meeting these objectives and countering these fictional bad guys is fun and exciting.

People care whether you can read and write. You may lose sleep over being unable to add, subtract, multiple and divide. Co-workers will be alerted if you don’t comprehend the basics of science and history.

And the higher the skill we’re aiming for, the greater the degree of importance.

This is a big deal.

Students shouldn’t struggle through a reading passage so they’ll get a score or a badge. They should actually care about what they’re reading.

My students and I just finished reading Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and they loved it.

After the first few chapters, they weren’t reading for a grade or to please me, their teacher. They truly wanted to know what would happen next. And to fully understand that, they had to exercise and refine their reading skills.

Look at it like this.

When I was playing Super Mario Bros., I often took a few warp zones to the last board so I could beat Bowser quickly and win the game. But that means I skipped over most of the first seven boards.

This didn’t matter because the only reason to play was to win. But if those first boards had included something important to the experience, skipping them would have greatly diminished my experience.

Gamification reduces learning until its meaningless. Why would anyone want to know something unless it carried with it a video game like reward?

And that’s merely the worst part.

In practice, most of the applications and software being pushed on kids to increase enthusiasm and motivation aren’t really very much fun at all. After a few times through, there isn’t much reason to plow through exposition heavy content with little to do. This material doesn’t connect to students’ lives, it doesn’t foster authentic competition, it doesn’t stoke their sense of wonder – it’s just a boring set of hoops to jump through to satisfy the instructor.

Admittedly, it does provide instant feedback, but that doesn’t matter if students don’t care about the matter at hand.

Social interactions are possible here but rarely have I seen this opportunity explored. A good group project will get students more engaged socially than messaging back and forth about the software challenge du jour.

Education can be so much more than this.

Not all things should be turned into a game.

Gamification is another example of trying too hard to market something to people who won’t actually be using it in the hopes that they won’t notice it doesn’t actually work that well.

The consumer isn’t the gamer – it’s the administrator who buys the program. And the people best suited to assess the program’s success – teachers and students – aren’t even part of the equation.

It’s about monetization, not education.

Mario may grab a bunch of coins on his way to save the princess, but it is the corporations who are getting rich off this sad fad.

All that glitters is not gold, just as all that is new and technological is not cutting edge.

Can we stop letting big business drive the field and let education be determined by educators?

Otherwise, it will be game over for an entire generation of kids duped into accepting crap for curriculum.

DON'T Put A Loaded Weapon In My Classroom by Graham Stewart

I can't even keep track of the remote control for the overhead projector. I have pencils and pens littered around the room because I forget where I put the last one I used. I lose stacks of photocopies on a daily basis. I put the stack down after I pass them out in first period and I can't find them for second period. I repeat this routine for every period. I come home with two whiteboard pens on a daily basis because I forget I have one and use another one from the chalk tray.

It may sound like I am absent minded (sometimes I am) but it really boils down to I am trying to make 30+ brains work towards the same goal. I have to monitor everyone's level of engagement every single minute. I need to keep 30+ adolescents focused on a task or content that 75% of them really care nothing about. I have to get them to willingly come along for the ride. I have to do this and take roll, send kids to the nurse, give attention to the quiet kid who is going through their parents' divorce, make sure that the two girls in the front of the room are including the shy boy in their group work, keep the kid who thinks he is funny away from his buddies, all the while negotiating a myriad of other distractions.

Teaching is one of the cognitively most difficult tasks I have ever done. On a good day I am only reaching about 85% of my goals and anything less than 100% means that there are going to be problems later on down the road. I live in a constant state of worry that I may unintentionally say something that will hurt a vulnerable kid. I worry that I am not reaching all the kids with the content they have to know to move on. I worry that some of my kids are using drugs or having sex. I worry that they are not getting enough to eat. I worry that my lesson is not good enough to reach 100% of the students and that they will fall behind later in life because of my teaching deficits.

Please, for the love of all that is good and holy, DON'T put a loaded weapon in my classroom. Someone is going to get hurt if you do. I have enough to worry now and I couldn't live with myself if something accidentally happened to one of my students in my care.

Please, just stop. It is a bad idea and a red herring to distract us from the real problem. Which is that it is too easy for people to get their hands on these weapons and shoot children. Let's work on that.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Teaching is Hard Enough Without the Threat of Imminent Death by Steven Singer

I am so sick of coming to school and having an impromptu meeting to discuss why my students and I might die today.


Every time there’s a major school shooting somewhere in the nation it seems a copycat makes a threat in my own backyard, and we react.

The police tell us it’s not a credible threat so school stays open.

However, be vigilant.

Be aware that our students know about the threat and will be talking about it.

We’ll bring in bomb-sniffing dogs…

But try to maintain calm and order.

There will be a lock down drill in a few days…

But try to make the kids feel safe and secure.

An older student violently attacked a classmate last week after threatening to go on a spree…

But attempt to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning.

To which, I say: are you freaking kidding me?

I know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


There are certain basic necessities anyone must have in order to become a fully actualized person.

After physiological necessities like food and water, safety is absolutely fundamental.

Without it, you can’t get people to focus much on anything else.

You can’t get children to pay attention to nouns and verbs, for instance, if they’re afraid they’re going to be shot and killed.

You can’t get them to care about writing a complete sentence, if they feel like they may have to duck and cover at any moment.

You can’t get them to bother with abstract reading comprehension if they’re afraid of imminent death!

Oh, and by the way, I’m not exactly at my best either!

Well, Yippee Ki Yay! I’m a teacher! Pew! Pew!

My 7th grade students are literally frightened that going to school on any given day may lead to the end of their lives.

Every couple of weeks on the news it’s another school shooting and another body count, while lawmakers do nothing to ensure it won’t happen again tomorrow.

Every few days, it’s a rumor about this or that troubled kid we all know snapping and throwing a gun in his backpack. Or it’s an anonymous threat scrawled on a wall or a social media page.

Today it was teaching classes where half the kids were missing because their parents held them out of school afraid a vague rumor of imminent violence was true.

And as I tried to assure those who did show up that everything was okay, law enforcement checked the lockers with K-9 police dogs looking for weapons or drugs.

What the heck are we coming to?

I work in a police state and my students are being asked to learn in a penitentiary.

And the principals should get guns.

And the parents should get guns.

And the guns should get little tinier guns to protect themselves from even more guns!

This is madness.

We’re begging for a political solution but our political system is a shambles. Nothing puts that in starker contrast than the gun debate.

The overwhelming majority of Americans want sensible gun laws – an assault weapons ban, closing the gun show loophole, mental health screenings, etc.

If we lived in an authentic Democratic Republic, we’d have them. But we don’t, because we live in a plutocracy.

It’s like Tony the Tiger suggesting the only cure for obesity is to eat more Frosted Flakes! They’re Ggggrrrreeeaaaattt!

A teacher’s job is hard enough without society crumbling all around us.

But that doesn’t mean the children aren’t learning.

They’re watching the world burn with wide eyes. They’re taking in every flame, every bullet hole, every cowardly senator, representative and chief executive.

They’re watching and taking names.

At the end of the year, policymakers will wag their fingers at the nation’s teachers about failing standardized test scores.

They’ll bemoan sinking academic standards, powerful labor unions and a lack of moral fiber as the cause of a generation of children who lost out on an education while cowering under bulletproof backpacks.

But this generation refuses to be lost.

Despite everything, they’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs back to sanity.

They are emotionally damaged by a country that no longer functions, but they know the truth.

They know who’s responsible. And they know what to do about it.

When they reject our society, we’ll know why.

Because the next generation will be nothing like us.

And on a day like today, that’s the most hopeful thought I can offer.

Gadfly on the Road – Reflections on My First Book Signing by Steven Singer

So there I was standing at a podium in Barnes and Noble before an audience of 25 people who had come to hear me talk about my book.

Speech uploaded to my iPad – check.

Cough drop – check.

Fear that no one would take me seriously – Oh, double, triple check!

Let me just say there is a big difference between sitting behind a keyboard pounding out your thoughts for consumption on the Internet, and being somewhere – anywhere – in person.

I’ve spoken at rallies. I’ve spoken at school board meetings. I’ve spoken in private with lawmakers and news people.

But none of that is quite like being the center of attention at your own invitation, asking people to take time out of their busy lives and drag their physical selves to some prearranged place at some prearranged time just to hear whatever it is you’ve got to say.

I had been practicing my remarks for weeks after school.

I had a 15-20 minute speech ready to go – a distillation of the main themes in my book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

Would people hear what I had to say?

I surveyed the audience. A few people I didn’t know. But there was my mom and dad, a bit more grey haired than I remembered yet doing their parental duty. There were a few colleagues from work – teachers, aides and substitutes. There were a few students standing in the back with their parents. One of my old high school buddies even showed up though he lived about a half hour away.

And there in the second row was my daughter.

For a moment, the whole world seemed to be nothing but her 9-year-old face – a mix of emotions – curiosity, nervousness, boredom.

In that moment, everything else disappeared. I had an audience of one.

I began.

It was surreal.

I spoke the words I had written weeks before, pausing to look up at the audience when I could.

Somehow I was both more and less nervous. I stumbled over parts that had caused no problems when alone. And I hit other points with more passion and purpose than ever before.

At certain points I found myself getting angry at the people behind the standardization and privatization of public education.

I rebuke these greedy saboteurs just about every week on my blog. But there was something different about putting the words on my tongue in public and letting the vibrations beat a rhythm on the ear drums of those assembled before me.

It was like reciting a spell, an incantation. And the effect was visible on the faces of those in front of me.

I glanced at my daughter, expecting her to be nagging her Pap to take her to the children’s section, but she was as entranced as the others.

And was I kidding myself or was there another emotion there? Pride?

I finished my remarks, getting a few laughs here and there. Anger and mirth in equal measure.

I thanked everyone for coming and took questions.

There were quite a bit.

Which aspect of corporate education reform was the worst?

Is there any way for parents to protect their children from standardized testing?

How has the gun debate impacted the move to privatization?

My mother even asked what alternative methods of assessment were preferable to standardized testing.

It went back and forth for a while.

When it seemed to die down, I thanked everyone for coming and said I would be there for as long as anyone would like to talk one-on-one and sign any books if people would like.

I had a line.

Thankfully, my wife brought me the nicest sharpie marker just before I got up there.

I tried to personalize as much as I could but everything seemed to be a variation on “Thanks for Coming.”

Students came up to me with huge grins. Parents asked more questions about their children. Lots of handshaking and hugs.

Teachers came up to tell me I had done a great job. Many introduced me to their kids – most itty bitty toddlers.

A former student who had already graduated got really serious and said, “It was about time someone said that.”

And it was over.

The store manager told me how many books we sold. I had no idea if that was good or bad, but he seemed well satisfied.

I packed everything up in my car and then went looking for my family.

I found them in the children’s section.

They had picked out a few books Mommy was purchasing. A really nice one about Harriet Tubman among them.

My daughter was sitting alone by a toy train set. She was worn out. It had been a long day.

“Daddy!” she said when she saw me. “You were amazing!”

And that was it.

That was all I’d needed.

She asked me about this or that from the speech. Obviously she didn’t understand the ins and outs of what I had said, but some of it had penetrated.

We talked about racism and why that was bad. We talked about what we could do to help stop it.

The rest of the time she held my hand and took me on a tour of the store.

I have hope for a better world, but if I’m honest, I’m not sure if writing this book or my activism or any of it will ever actually achieve its goal.

As ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”

But I’ve shown my daughter where I stand.

I’ve shown her where I think it’s appropriate to stand.

I’ve shown the same to my students, my family, my community.

They’ll do with that what they will.

I just hope that one day when I’m gone, my daughter will remember what I taught her.

She’ll remember and feel my presence though I’m long gone.


Videos of the majority of my speech:
Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3: