How I gamified and aspect of my own teaching … and what I learned in the process

In the last couple of posts, I wrote about how I gamified my own study habits. In this post, I will write about how I gamified an aspect of my own teaching, and what I learned through this process. In case you don’t already know, I teach piano privately, and I have been doing this for a couple of years. Some time ago, I read about the Hal Leonard 40 Pieces in a Year Challenge, in the Australian Piano Teacher Magazine, and then I stumbled across Tim Topham’s blog. He put forward a very cool idea that involved a coffee-card, for every piece of music that his student learned up, a hole was punched through the card. The goal was to get to forty pieces in a whole year. I liked the idea of keeping a coffee-card to keep track of all the pieces learned. Having said that, I when I read about the coffee-card, I felt like something was missing. I drink a lot of coffee, and by a lot, I mean a lot. When I am inside a café, much of my time is spent rummaging through my wallet, trying to find the correct loyalty card. Coffee is important to me, and free coffee makes me smile.

A piano coffee-card without a reward?! What is this madness?!  

Of course, I know that younger, primary school-aged children do not drink coffee. Still, I had an idea – what if I went down to the local café that I frequently visited, and asked the kind, kind ladies if they would provide my students with free hot chocolates or ice-creams for every ten pieces they learned, much like a normal loyalty card? In exchange, I was more than happy to help promote their business through my facebook page, website and blog. I also already supported their business on a regular basis as my Saturday afternoons were regularly spent there, indulging in coffee and breakfast. After a brief trip to the café, the ladies were kind enough to allow my students to enjoy free hot-chocolates. I put my designer hat on and made a 40 Pieces in a year Challenge Coffee Card. You are probably all thinking now, that is all well and good, but did this work? And is this even gamification? Ten points to anybody who can spot the game mechanics that I used in this particular instance. If you guessed: progress bar, tangible performance contingent rewards and social sharing, you guessed correctly! Have ten points (not sure what you can do with them though…)!

The card worked as a way to keep track of how many pieces were learned over the course of a single year. When the students accumulated stickers, they were able to visually see their progress (and show it off to their parents). Since the target audience were primary school-aged children, they would have had to go to the café with another adult (often one of their parents). This in turn meant that they were able to celebrate their achievements with another person. In theory, this looks very pretty, in fact almost ideal. How did reality present itself? In the beginning, many of the children who I taught loved this idea. They would get excited after hearing about FREE HOT CHOCOLATES!  What happened when they acquired enough stickers to get their hot chocolate? They asked their parents, with eager pleas – ‘can we go to the café this week?’ They’d come to their lessons with great stories on how lovely the ladies were at the café, and they would talk about how delicious the hot chocolates were. Did this type of eagerness and excitement last when they learned twenty, thirty or even forty pieces? No. Excuses were made, legitimate ones – ‘we didn’t have time this week,’ or ‘we’ve been busy.’ Surprise, surprise, sound familiar? Yes, novelty does wear off, but like I have said before, when novelty wears off, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What did I learn from all of this?! Game designers have often spoken about the habit-feedback-loop. Have you ever noticed, that in video games, you don’t need to go to an instruction manual, or even be told instructions in order to learn how to play that game? In the earlier levels, you are taught how to play the game by performing a simple action, it might involve say, learning how to jump, or learning how to shoot. After you learn these simple actions, you get a reward – the level is unlocked and you earn a few points. Then, in the later levels, you learn to use these actions in more sophisticated and complex ways. How do you know you are doing the right thing? Losing a heart, or losing energy alerts you to what you are doing something wrong, while the points, and unlocking of levels would tell you that are you doing something right. You start to get into this habit-feedback-cycle, but giving the same reward for the same kind of task is not enough – we all need more in order to be challenged. What was the point to this whole coffee-card thing anyway? It was never about the hot chocolates, really. It was about practicing music, setting goals and fulfilling them, so bearing that in mind, did the coffee-card system work? Yes, it did. The stickers served as a way to chart progress. Every lesson gave myself, the student (and the parent) the perfect opportunity to pull out the card and marvel at how far they’ve progressed. Having said that, in the future, I do intend to change the rewards around, and to make some of them more relevant to their piano studies. For instance, once a student hits thirty pieces, I had the idea of having them make their own physical CD. In these cases, they would pick five of their favourite pieces, have them polished, and then also have the students write their own liner notes, design their own cover art and get multiple copies to distribute. This should (in theory) challenge them, and motivate them to want to practice more.