A game which is broken

Seth Priebatsch (of TED talk fame) gave a keynote here at SXSW which focused on game mechanics, touching on the areas where he feels there is huge potential for application. These include loyalty, customer acquisition and global warming - but his most useful comments (I thought) were about education.

He sees school as "a game which is broken". Schools are near perfect game ecosystems, containing motivated players, challengers, awards, rules, allies, enemies, levels, appointment dynamics, incentives and disincentives and yet we've based education on the wrong rewards. We've replaced the real reward (learning) with a fake reward (test and exam results).

He unpacked the game analogy further; grades are simply levels, and based on that analogy you should never be able to level down. There's currently too large a focus on failing - it should be based on progressions instead. We should start with e.g. zero experience points, so we can then focus on the positive progression through the system.

He had some interesting views on cheating, too - the current disincentive isn't on cheating, it's on getting caught. People learn how to play the game based on how you've designed it. He was educated at Princeton, where he says cheating has been greatly reduced there (from 400 examples per year down to 2), by getting students to write the honour system themselves and sharing the burden of reporting cheating - complicity is treated as much a crime as cheating itself. So, when they take a test, there is no teacher, no admin of any kind. The mentality has changed so the "enemy" is no longer the teacher - it's the test, and you get there together.

At The Team we've got several projects on the go that focus on education, for both children and adults, at school and in the workplace, and it set me thinking about whether the mechanics in those systems can be improved. How effective would it be to influence educational systems via the IT systems which are supposed to help? What are the moral implications? Other than using the Princeton anecdote, what other information do we have to justify a modified design approach?

This also needs to be considered alongside something called the Hierarchy of Cognitive skills. It's one thing to repeat something learned by rote, but the real goal is to progress through the levels through understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating. My gut feel is that the focus on the appropriate rewards would help move more students through this process.

Lots of food for thought!