Tips and tools for gamifying the special education classroom

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If you struggle with student absenteeism, you are not alone. A 2018 Gallup poll shows that across the United States, 8.1 million students are considered “disengaged”, which is defined as missing three weeks or more of school per year. The same poll indicated that 91 percent of superintendents think that student engagement is the measurement of public school success.

A powerful way to make school more engaging is to apply game theory to instruction. In his writings, Professor James Paul Gee, a recognized learning game expert, says that the qualities that make video games engaging can also be applied in the classroom. He suggests that teachers:

  • Present activities as a challenge or quest
  • Reward with badges or points
  • Provide instant feedback
  • Let students embrace failure/risk (if it involves learning how to play)
  • Enable students to track their own progress
  • Support student voice and choice by allowing them to be a co-designer

Gee also stressed that a crucial element in gamifying instruction is to make sure the developmental level is correct; to make the activity vigorous but not overwhelming. This is particularly true for students with special needs, who may refuse to participate if they suspect that the activity will make them look weak or inadequate.

It is also a rule in learning game design that the player should be presented with a demand for speed OR a demand for accuracy, but not a demand for both speed and accuracy at the same time, because this can be too stressful for the player.

Unfortunately, much gamification technology, which offers a game show format presented as “engaging”, forces students to compete individually based on both speed and accuracy. Special education teachers should beware of this.

However, in order to retain instruction, students must practice recalling it, and a game show format works well for this formative assessment. Some ways to mitigate the threat of student embarrassment is to make responses anonymous to the class as a whole, or have students work in teams.

Of the four most common “game show-type” apps (Kahoot, Quizizz, Quizlet Live, and Gimkit). Quizlet allows collaborative use, and Quizizz allows asynchronous, anonymous responses. For an excellent analysis of the four apps, see “Game show classroom: Comparing Kahoot!, Quizizz, Quizlet Live, and Gimkit, Plus Alternative Gameplay Ideas” by Matt Miller, author of “Ditch That Textbook.”

There are other ways to gamify classes.

  • Classcraft allows students to adopt a Dungeons & Dragons-type persona online, and students level up based on good behavior.
  • Escape rooms allow students to work in groups to solve instruction-related puzzles.
    BreakoutEdu.com offers a physical game kit for team use and supplemental digital games for iOS or Android app which can be completed individually. There are a wide variety of curriculum-aligned subjects and you can also create your own games. When adapting for students with special needs, consider having the students take turns as hint masters. Breakout EDU Digital also allows non-timed quests which involve rescues. See the Breakout EDU Digital Sandbox with community-created games, and/or use this Google Docs template to create your own escape room.
  • Create themes, teams, and side quests. High school English teacher Laura Steinbrink wrote an excellent article about this entitled “Themes, Teams, and Side Quests: A Superhero’s Guide to Gamification” on DitchThatTextbook.com. To promote cooperative learning, have teams do member swaps for special missions. See Steinbrink’s article for more ideas.

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