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Having Fun While Working Hard

Posted by on in Student Engagement
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Recently, I read a quote from Hyman Rickover.  Rickover was an admiral in the United States Navy.  A Russian immigrant, he is the father of nuclear propulsion.  Admiral Rickover was known as a workaholic.  He never considered himself smart, only those around him dumb.  Looking forward, the United States education system worried him a great deal as he thought about the country being left to our descendants.  He thought it in disrepair, failing our students. Admiral Rickover wrote extensively about the issues facing our students and the failing nature of our education system.  One such quote jumped from the page:

“The student must be made to work hard, and nothing can really make it fun.”  -Admiral Hyman Rickover

I wanted to give this quote plenty of space to let it sink in a bit.  He believed student and social issues were a waste of time. Curriculum should be taught to students until they reached capacity.  The age old lecture and learn scenario. Industrialized education at its finest.  Rows upon rows of desks, strictly arranged one after the other.  Students dutifully sitting behind their desk, writing careful notes from the content specialist, nay, content genius, wanting to emulate this individual with all of their knowledge-filled hearts.

This is the image I wrestled with as I transitioned my classroom to gamification.  How can this be beneficial to my students?  We are essentially playing.  Would some type of curriculum police show up at my door and demand to see proof of desks in rows and a lecture podium?  This dilemma caused a great deal of anxiety.  The idea, however, that my students were not getting what they needed from me and the fact that they were not engaged, in the least bit, was far more stressful than the changes happening in my room. I gathered the courage and decided it was better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

To begin, I had to ask myself what I wanted from my students.  I wanted engagement.  This was the key that would unlock everything else that is necessary for a student to be successful.  How would I get that kind of engagement?  What do kids do, in their daily life, that manages to keep their short attention spans engaged for long periods of time. The answer was simple: gaming. Kids will play a game over and over again until they beat it.  They will do whatever is necessary to overcome any obstacles and beat the game.  Could you imagine that kind of dedication in the classroom? Working on a concept, over and over, until a student achieves mastery.  And that, in a nutshell, is gamification.

A year and a half into this journey and my philosophy on education has changed dramatically.  The classroom should be a second home where students are up, moving, problem-solving and working together.  While the content is important, the way in which students think about the content is much more important.  Bringing the world into my classroom and learning through role-play, simulations, game mechanics, and virtual lessons has replaced the traditional textbook and folder.  The results have been positive.  Test scores have significantly increased but more importantly, student engagement has increased.  And yes, Admiral Rickover, it’s okay to have fun in school.

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After graduating from the University of Cincinnati I began teaching sixth grade.  I have taught at the same rural Appalachian school district for the last 20 years and consider it an honor.  Learning is my love.  Continually taking coursework is my second hobby.  While I have earned my masters degree from the University of Massachusetts, I have taken classes from Penn State, The Harvard Extension School, Savannah College of Art and Design, the University of Cincinnati, and The University of Queensland. Currently, I am a doctoral student in Educational Technology at Concordia Chicago.

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Guest Saturday, 20 July 2019