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Right Motivation

Games can be great for learning, but watch the rewards.

Video games are an integral part of a gamified classroom. There are several top education-oriented games, including Refraction, a free online puzzle that is not obviously a lesson in fractions. Refraction lets teachers watch students’ progress on their computers to see what concepts the students understand, according to the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, which produced the game.

Scratch is a programming language that gives users the ability to create their own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art—and share their work on the Web. It was developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. Director Mitchel Resnick says he is “a strong supporter of creating environments that would be appealing for kids, and strongly supportive of the trend to find ways to help kids become deeply engaged and learn in the process.” However, Resnick is not a proponent of gamification in the classroom, saying he views it as placing too much emphasis on incentives and rewards in support of the learning process. “Learning should not be turned into a game,” he maintains. Research has shown that emphasizing short-term, intrinsic rewards that are separate from core learning motivates kids to focus only on the reward rather than the ideas themselves, Resnick says.

“Giving prizes means … oftentimes they won’t get motivated to learn on their own. It doesn’t develop their curiosity and thirst for becoming lifelong learners, and I think that’s more important than anything else in school.”

Kids get motivated by sharing their work with one another, Resnick says. “We don’t give rewards because we think that would be counterproductive. We focus on kids having playful engagement and being deeply engaged, but as an active participant by sharing their work and getting feedback from others.”

Initially, Scratch was used primarily by young people at home and in after-school centers. Now, it is used more ­frequently in schools. One of Resnick’s grad students started a site called ScratchEd, for educators, and more than 5,000 educators have registered for it (scratched.media.mit.edu). The lab was surprised to learn that Scratch is also used in the introductory computer science programs at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Rutgers, among other universities. But Resnick expects it’s because Scratch “provides a very clear way of understanding core concepts of computer science.” While other institutions and companies are making games and apps that help kids learn, the Media Lab designs tools for kids to make their own games, stories, and animation. “We think the richest part of the learning experience is when you’re doing the creating,” Resnick says.

—Winter 2013—

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