The role of gamification in problem solving.

It allows the player to begin to act, with some degree of effectiveness, before being really competent – “performance before competence.” The player thereby eventually comes to gain competence through trial, error and feedback, not by wading through a lot of text before being able to engage in activity.” James Paul Gee in Good Video Games + Good Learning.

The application of gamification, that is the usage of game elements in non-game contexts, is growing in PE and youth sport. Whether it is through simple points scoring systems for fitness workouts, cards that offer game based scenarios and super powers or through a more comprehensive use of guiding principles to shape practice.

In a previous post, I made the point that gamification was mainly for motivational purposes. An imaginative way to improve young people’s engagement with physical activity and with learning. However two papers I’ve read recently have made me question my position and ask whether well applied principles of gamification can also be used as a means of scaffolding for problem solving?

The first paper is The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving (Wood et al, 1976). The authors of the paper examine how children aged between 3 to 5 years old responded when a teacher gave them support in a block building task. The intention of the teacher was to allow the children time and space to figure things out themselves, and only intervene if necessary.

Through observing the actions of the children with the blocks and the interactions with the teacher, the authors propose the concept of scaffolding. Its begins “by luring the child into actions that produce recognisable-for-him solutions“. This is followed by error checking and success confirmation until the child is able to problem solve on their own.

The authors propose several functions of scaffolding to assist with problem solving. This is to recruit the young person’s attention, reduce the degrees of freedom in the task, maintain and direct their attention, mark critical features, help with their emotional response to the problem and demonstrate solutions when they can recognise them.

The second paper is Gamification and physical education. Viability and preliminary views from students and teachers (Fernandez-Rio et al, 2020). Their study was to explore how gamification may be used in physical education, for motivational purposes, as empirical studies within the PE context are limited.

Elements used to ‘gamify’ educational contexts are grouped in three categories:

  • (a) Dynamics: this is the highest conceptual level and it includes narrative, progression, emotions, constrains, relationships.
  • (b) Mechanics: this is the second level and it includes the elements that makes the action progress: rules, challenges, chance, competition, cooperation, feedback.
  • c) Components: this is the basic level and it represents tangible elements: avatars, achievements, trophies, badges, points, leaderboards, levels…

“Points (components) provide rewards (mechanics) and create a sense of progression (dynamics).”

Using these categories, the researchers developed a number of key elements of a gamificated PE context. A powerful narrative drove the activity and the learning, with challenging goals and skills to master throughout the unit with each one including different difficulty levels to challenge the young people both individually and in groups. There was a mastery class climate with a focus on performing the different tasks, help group members, earn points, earn badges and not out performing others. Self-regulated learning was encouraged by allowing the young people to pace themselves and decided which skills to perform, and which level they wanted to strive with immediate feedback on how well they are doing. The tasks were purposefuly designed from simple to hard offering visibly incremental success with badges for achievements awarded not just for completion of the task but also for pro-social behaviour. Finally the children were placed in groups during the whole learning unit to build social connection and cohesion to support their learning.

Figure 1. The role of gamification in problem solving.

The research carried out by the authors of the paper was interested on the impact of gamification on the motivation of the children involved. The results showed a significant increase in their intrinsic motivation after experiencing Gamification, as well as some (self-reported) evidence of learning. This may be due to the gamification of the unit of work acting a means of scaffolding problem solving. As Figure 1 demonstrates, a number of the key functions of scaffolding can be re-imagined as the key elements of gamification.

Is gamification as effective as one to one tutoring? No and I don’t think further research and evidence will find that. Is gamification a way for increasing engagement? No doubt, but how long this lasts for beyond novelty and what negative impact it may have on future motivation and learning needs to be carefully considered within the PE and wider educational context. What these two papers offer when aligned, is that well thought through and implemented key elements of gamification, may have the potential to act as functions of scaffolding to support problem solving within PE. Although to achieve that PE Teachers are clearly going to have to move beyond a haphazard pick and mix approach of selecting their preferred features solely from the categories of components or mechanics.

Whilst before I only thought gamification was a short term solution to increasing children’s motivation and engagement with PE, it may offer PE teachers an inclusive and meaningful pedagogical approach that they can add to their tool box which supports learning and that children find personally relevant and enjoyable.

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