Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reflections on Education, Games, and Motivation

Reflections on Education, Games, and Motivation
by Beat A Schwendimann

Students are motivated to spend hours playing computer games, but many don't like going to school. Could school be structured in way that is more motivating for students? The The Federation of American Scientists claims that videogames can reshape educationA 2006 University of Michigan study found that by age 21, the average US-youth has watched 20,000 hours of television and played 10,000 hours of video games (eSchoolnews, vol 11, No 6, p51). Computer games give a user virtual control over a world, giving him a feeling of control and self-efficacy. This can especially appealing to teenagers who have limited control over their lives. In addition, computer games are relevant to the students because they are competitive and motivating through direct feedback and an opportunity for socialization. This fascinating video by the NY times show the level of immersion,focus, and motivation of videogame players.

What is a game? There are many definitions for what a game is. My broad definition is :A game consists of one or multiple players that show competitive behavior following a certain set of rules to overcome certain challenges in order to achieve a certain goal. There can be a number of different motivations to play games.

According to this definition, formal education is a game. Schools have a large set of rules. Students are faced with challenges, for example exams, which they try to overcome in order to achieve a certain goal, for example a graduation certificate.

Psychologists describe this as extrinsic motivation: People are motivated to do something either to get an award or avoid punishment (both which come from outside oneself). Idealistic educators insist that motivation for learning should be intrinsic: Students should not learn to get a gold star or a diploma, but because they are interested in the subject matter itself.

Attending a formal school setting itself is an external motivation (expect maybe for students at Summerhill). Student attend school because their parents and the law make them. On the other hand, informal education, for example going to a museum exhibition, watching a science show TV, looking up interesting science information online, is intrinsically motivated. In informal settings, people learn about things they are personally interested in. Hobby enthusiasts and fans often have vast and in-depth knowledge about the subject of their interest (without getting academic diplomas for it). So it seems somewhat odd to insist on exclusively intrinsic motivation in a setting, formal schooling, that is inherently based on extrinsic motivation.

So the questions remains: Why not use extrinsic motivation to get students to learn? Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer started an experiment in which students receive cash money for good grades. At the end of each month, students receive a pay check up to $50, depending on their performance. Students all agreed that receiving money for doing well on a test was a good idea, saying it made school more exciting, and made doing well more socially acceptable.
Nationally, school districts have experimented with a range of approaches: Some are giving students gift certificates, vouchers for McDonald’s meals, class pizza parties, or play-money that can be spent in the student store. One could argue that continuous extrinsic motivation gets the job done; First through grades in school, later through money and career progress.
Critics of such extrinsic incentives approaches fear that an overjustification effect might occur. The overjustification effect is a decrease in a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a task while receiving an external incentive, for example money or gold stars. (This classic joke illustrates the overjustification effect).
Motivation research found that money alone does not improve peoples' motivation, at least not after their basic needs are covered (Article on how a salary above $75'000/year does not increase happiness). Beyond their basic needs (as outlined by Maslow), people seem to be motivated to work for self-actualization on tasks that allow them to get into the flow state.

Another approach to simulate extrinsic motivation is using computer-based environments. Research on online games can give an idea of the power of virtual incentives: A recent infograph reported that Facebook users spend an average total of 927 million hours per month (!) playing Facebook games, a majority of them is playing the game Farmville.

Some examples:
  • Professor Lee Sheldon from Indiana University successfully implemented a game-based scoring system in his college course to replace traditional grades (see blog entry on Lee Sheldon).

If education is seen as a game, then competition is a central part of education. Education in Asia (for example China, Japan, or South Korea) is much more competitive than in the US. Students are constantly ranked and compete with each other for admission the the best higher education schools (to "level up"). U.S. K-12 education on the other hand follows the democratic principle of equality. Every student should have equal chances for success, which includes ideally not only equal opportunity to learn (input) but also equal opportunity to excel (output). Low performance is U.S. schools is associated with failure of the school-system, bad teachers, or disadvantageous socio-economic backgrounds. The belief is that all students can academically excel, given the right support and opportunity.

In other countries, the belief is that schools educate and select the students that show academic excellence, while other students enter vocational training. As the U.S. does not have a vocational school alternative, K-12 education became a try-to-fit-all solution. The president of Bard college, Leon Botstein, suggests that junior high schools should be removed and replaced with a K-10 school, and the graduation age of 18 should be dropped to 16. At the age of 16, students can either go to college or get a job.

An example is Switzerland that established a dual-education system (and wikipedia on dual education system): At the age of sixteen, students choose to follow an higher academic education or the enter an apprenticeship. Apprentices are employed by companies and receive a small salary. They work for their employer while spending 1-2 days each week at vocational school where they continue their general education and learn skills related to their craft. After completing their apprenticeship, students can decided to remain in their craft or attend a professional university. Professional university offer bachelor and master degrees equivalent to the traditional university. Professional university graduates are often in high demand as their portfolio includes both practical experience and theoretical knowledge. Swiss craftsmen are among the highest skilled in the world and they frequently win international craftsmen championships.

This post discussed two different ways that could make schools (or learning in general) more interesting: First, game-mechanics could be used to increase extrinsic motivation to increase performance in school. Second, through situated learning like internships, apprenticeships, and project-based learning, students could gain real-work-life experience which might improve their intrinsic motivation for further education as they see a real-life purpose for their learning.

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