For the students at Le Salésien High School in Sherbrooke, Quebec, physics will never be the same. Instead of jocks, loners, and preppy kids, the kids in Shawn Young's class are now warriors, mages, and healers.
Young, an 11th-grade teacher and web developer, invented Classcraft three years ago as an alternative teaching tool—gamification for the classroom. It transforms any subject into a role-playing game with minimal disruption to a lesson plan. By the time the website went live last spring, it was trending on Reddit with 130,000 unique visits in a day. Now the platform is available to teachers in 30 countries (free, to the end of the school year), and an iOS app is coming in September, with Android to follow.
"The game acts like a layer of augmented reality," Young tells us. "So a teacher who plays Classcraft doesn’t have to change the way they’re teaching, which is a good incentive for educators ... We had people who implemented it, and they’re saying they’ve had radical changes in student participation in less than a week. It’s astounding for teachers to get that kind of engagement."
Classcraft uses a system of real-life rewards and risks. Students divide into teams and choose their "class": stronger kids might pick mages because they have the best powers while social kids tend to go with healers because they’re excellent team players. Good performance in the classroom nets experience points (XP) that students can use to learn abilities like "hunting," which gives them permission to eat in class, but negative behavior leads to consequences such as less time to finish an exam or even detention. Students have to work together to win.
"Success is an individual thing in our society, which is a bit bad for education because it means that what we’re doing is encouraging students to learn on their own whereas studies show that learning is actually better as a social endeavor," says Young. "You work better working in teams."
Young also rewards positive interaction outside of the classroom. If the football team wins a game, he might give all the players on the team in his class extra XP. "Students can log into the game, check out their stats, so they’re conscious of the game even outside of the classroom. So it does have an impact."
All teachers need to operate Classcraft is a laptop and projector. The platform is web-based and runs on Chrome and Safari. Young says making sure the technology was easy to use was hugely important. You don’t have to be a gamer to get it. "Teachers aren’t necessarily that good at tech, and it’s a big challenge to implement tech in classrooms today. So it’s a challenge for them to always be learning these new complicated technologies that aren’t always designed for educational purposes with teachers in mind."
Young knows this firsthand: He teaches tech to colleagues and says that the biggest motivators for them to integrate tech in the classroom is that there’s an immediate gain and a small learning curve. "As time moves forward, technology, whether we want it or not, is taking its place in the classroom," he says. "Given the right resources, teachers will want to move forward. Seeing examples of things that work is really encouraging for them."
Kids are really taking to Classcraft, too. High school especially is a hard time for students to maintain interest, says Young, "so I think that Classcraft for that reason has a particularly strong appeal for high school students because it actually makes going to class fun, which is pretty great for them because otherwise they’re just complaining about how boring it is."
Young says educators have a duty to tap culture so students can better relate to what they’re learning. Emotional attachment matters. "In an ideal world, students would love to learn for themselves, but that’s not the reality. To me, any tool we can use to help foster better learning and more collaboration in classrooms, we should be using it."
He recalled one student who wasn’t worried about his report card so much as dying in the game. "It’s interesting because it shifts their motivation for being in class away from this long-term goal of having good grades to a really immediate goal of leveling up in the game. It’s something that, in this modern era, it’s something that that kids can relate to because it’s so instantaneous. Why wouldn’t feedback and reward systems in education be also?"
Random events are fun and bring an element of surprise for teachers, who can control and customize the experience, as well as students. A few weeks ago, Young "had to sing a beautiful rendition of ‘Wrecking Ball’ for my class."
But one result came as a total surprise: Classcraft has made the rules of classroom etiquette easier for kids to understand. "It becomes very clear what they can and can’t do, what they should be doing, and because they’re being rewarded or punished instantly for it," he says. "And they’re pretty lucid about that and about how they like that because classroom discipline is such a fuzzy thing generally, and Classcraft really codifies proper student behavior. That’s reassuring for them."
Even better, kids aren’t afraid to take physics anymore—at least not at his school.
"And you know, they look forward to it," he says, laughing. "And it also makes them relate to their teachers as human beings. And I think having a relationship with your students, however you develop that, is really important to making sure they learn in the best way possible."