Gamification: What’s the points?

Gamification is not new to our classrooms. Classrooms are the real games fields, the only change of late is that teachers may be deliberately instigating more of the gaming than before. Ritual games that pass down through the years and are a crucial part of the social conditioning and development process that is formal education. Sometimes the teacher can be central to these games, other times they are almost an inconvenient irrelevance, but some of the best games have the teacher at their very heart. And they may not even know it.

The best gaming times from my own schooling were in what would now be called Year 9, but in those days was known as the Third Year, on the grounds that anything you had done before entering the portals of secondary school didn’t really count. My form was 3D, which really helped us stand out. Not because we were the worst form of the four form year year group, of course, as my school prided itself on not streaming. But 3C & D somehow did seem to include more of the working class and less well­-behaved students, whilst 3A & B did seem to include almost all the posh kids, so some mysterious form of selection was presumably at work? As was highlighted when it came to choosing the applicants for Oxbridge. But that’s another story.

‘Flaff’ Peckitt was the geography teacher for class 3D, and it seemed for almost all the kids at the school. Now Flaff, nickname origin lost, was almost a parody of a teacher in the 60s, looking as he did the spitting image of Teacher in the Beano’s Bash Street Kids. Complete with that little black moustache and the brownish­-orange harris tweed jacket with the mandatory leather elbow patches, but sadly lacking the mortar board that we always hoped he would one day turn up wearing. At the time we thought Flaff absolutely ancient, but when looking back at school photos it is clear that he was just one of those 50s hangover types who believed that you showed maturity by looking, dressing and acting like your father. A receding hairline, emphasised by brushing back what hair was left, heightened the impression of age. He was probably only only in his 30s, but was clearly going on 55 in teaching terms.

We took the mickey out of most of our teachers – that was what they were there for. But Flaff was a godsend to bored 14 year olds, mainly because he had a number of stock phrases that he used so regularly that they formed the basis of what would later evolve into Buzzword Bingo. His two most commonly­used phrases, so standard that each only scored one point, were ‘you know’, and ‘as it were’. Rare was the speech by Flaff that didn’t include both at least a couple of times, and they were duly entered on the graph paper score sheets that many of us had taken to carrying in our jotters, to keep tally of the geographer’s ramblings.

Buzzword

But these were not his only linguistic traits that created delight amongst his pupils. Geographical pronunciations, in his own somewhat affected speech, turned parts of the world we knew, and some we had barely heard of, into garbled parodies that also earned him valuable points on the Peckitt Scale, recorded so carefully each lesson. The Erzegebirge mountains (Ertsy Gebirgey in Flaff speak) would have us rolling on the floor and biting back hysterical laughter. But the real party piece was his pronunciation of the Himalayas, that we all knew pretty well from news reports of the conquest of Everest. And from the jokes about the Sherpa Tensing as Sir Edmund Hillary took him up the Khyber Pass – weak geographically and grammatically, but scoring high on the schoolboy humour scale.

erzegebirge (Hans-Joachim Fröde)

Not for Flaff the familiar Him­a­LAY­as of the news reporters. In his version of the world they became the Him­AL­y­as which made them sound exotic, but also absurd, and were worth a good 10 points on anyone’s score card. Certainly on 3D’s. As was his pronunciation of Erzegebirge. An assortment of other now­ forgotten regular phrases and peculiarities formed the basis of an agreed score­card that got us, and other forms, through tedious geography lessons, as we carefully logged his performance.

Himalayas (Himanshu Punetha)

On the infamous Friday afternoon that it all came to a head, 3D were assembled as usual in the geography room at one corner of the quad. The school had a rose garden dedicated to its war dead, surrounded on three sides by teaching rooms, and the fourth by a toilet block, giving a pillared quadrangle, with Flaff’s room at one corner. It was one of those rare hot summer days when the heat was positively oppressive, and most pupils around the quad were either dozing or feeling irritable. Many would be listening out in case Mad Acko, the Latin teacher, started banging his head with the desk lid as he was occasionally prone to do when someone’s translation really upset him. But in the Geography Room excitement was building, for Flaff had decided to cover geomorphology, and in particular, the formation of mountains.

Now a number of the world’s highest mountain ranges were also high on the Peckitt Scale, and whether it was the heat or the topic we’ll never know, but the ‘as it weres’ and ‘you knows’ were also flowing particularly freely. Suddenly the tension was electric, you could cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife. But dear old Flaff appeared oblivious and droned on about glaciation, and the Himalayas, as squares were checked off on graph paper across the room.

staff

Suddenly there was total cacophony, pupils were leaping and cheering, and banging desk lids, while a bemused Faff looked on first in bewilderment, then with anxiety, before shooting out of the door and along the quad towards the main building and the staff room. The din continued and gradually cheering spread around the quad as other hot and bored pupils decided to join in, though they knew not why. This became the legendary ‘summer riot of 1960’, an unsolved mystery to this day, until this revelation that you are in the midst of reading.

The school’s deputy was a small, hawk­like man with a fearsome reputation, and a dab hand with the bamboo cane. With the surname Jewel he was inevitably nicknamed ‘Jimmy’ after the smart one in the ageing comedy duo Jimmy Jewell and Ben Warris, though never to his face, of course. (OK… you will probably need to Google them if not of a certain age).

jewell and warriss
Jewell and Warriss

Suddenly he appeared striding angrily down the quad, with not one but two canes under his arm. Including the thin one that could draw blood on a good day… or a bad day, if it was your blood.

A hush fell, and calm was restored. We knew not to tangle with Jimmy Jewel. But even his stern presence and a version of the Spanish Inquisition failed to find out why there was a sudden and inexplicable riot that midsummer Friday afternoon. And only those in the class knew that what Jimmy Jewel described as ‘appalling riotous behaviour’ merely marked Flaff Peckitt beating his all­time, all­comers points scoring record.

Leap forward to another hot sunny summer’s afternoon some 10 years later. A first year group of science students are carefully, or not­ so carefully depending, drawing a typical flask, rubber bung and tubing setup, and plotting their experimental findings on graph paper. One cherubic and innocent face turns towards the teacher, and says “Please can I have some more of that special paper, sir”? pointing at the pile on the front bench. “You mean the graph paper?” asks sir, and he senses a ripple go round the room. Something’s up, he thought, and was immediately on his guard. Another equally cherubic face turns to him shortly after, another hand is raised, and a further question follows. “What’s the proper name for the cork thing that goes in the top of the flask, sir?”

Alarm bells ring. The teacher’s mind flashes back to the rose garden of 10 years earlier. The whooping, cheering pupils of 3D. But where’s the connection, what are the rules? He says the anticipated answer in his mind, and smiles. For he remembers that he is from Yorkshire, but is teaching in Hammersmith. He has grasped the principle. “And how many points are scored if I tell you it’s a bung?” he asked. The boy snorted, went bright pink, and looked down at his feet. “And if I say ‘It’s too hot to work in the lab, let’s go out onto the grass’, am I getting close to my record”, asks the teacher with a grin? Then more boys laugh, the game is up, he actually KNOWS he is getting points for any flat northern vowel sounds, for goodness sake. Graph, bung, grass, bath, all are points material. And some real classroom bonds are built that afternoon that last throughout their time in school when in turn he tells them the Flaff Peckitt story.

Potometer (Theresa Knott)

Leap forward another 20 years, and the former teacher’s teenage daughter comes home from her school on yet another hot summer’s day. “How was your day at school,” he asks? A quiz ensues, which rapidly establishes that her chemistry teacher is named Davies, and that he has a habit of saying ‘OK?” to the class rather too often. So often, in fact, as to make a points game playable, and this had been the high point of her day as he hit his highest ever total. She had, of course, been totally unaware of both the Flaff Peckitt episode and the teacher’s own graph paper showdown. But kids will be kids, and traditions roll on…

Maybe, just maybe, this is one rather tenuous reason for banning mobile phones from the classroom? Fertile teenage brains have always become bored when submitted to a standard curriculum, as delivered by a teacher from the front. Allow them some creative space, supply idiosyncratic teachers, and gamification comes into the classroom in its real subversive guise, rather than some elaborate pedagogical or sociological construct. Peckitt points were always worth more than house points, after all.

So maybe we should just ban phones and make pupils reliant on their own resources throughout lessons? Could this be enough to turn bored children away from their customary dull routine of peer bullying on Facebook, or messaging each other photos of their genitals, and empower them to unleash their imaginations? Would they then rediscover the joy of constructing social games based on the humiliation of teachers, that crucial rite of passage for teenage pupils everywhere? After all, points win prizes, and could there be any prize more worthy?

But maybe even then the phones could help? Just in case, I am in the process of developing an app to help keep a tally of teachers’ point scores, complete with templates and a central website, with leaderboards and challenge competitions. I am pretty sure that I could be onto a real winner here….

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