Gam­i­fied Research Series: Con­struc­tion­ist Gaming

In this inter­view Diana Lau­ril­lard explains why con­struc­tion­ist prin­ci­ples are so valu­able to edu­ca­tion and how they can be incor­po­rat­ed into fun games that peo­ple want to play.

Diana is Pro­fes­sor of Learn­ing with Dig­i­tal Tech­nolo­gies at the UCL Knowl­edge Lab. She was pre­vi­ous­ly Head of the E‑Learning Strat­e­gy Unit at Depart­ment for Edu­ca­tion and Skills and Pro-Vice Chan­cel­lor for Learn­ing Tech­nolo­gies at the Open Uni­ver­si­ty. Her research includes large-scale online com­mu­ni­ties of teacher-design­ers, and the use of spe­cialised dig­i­tal course design tools to enable teach­ers to cre­ate and share new ped­a­go­gies for using learn­ing tech­nol­o­gy. She is cur­rent­ly run­ning two MOOCs on teacher devel­op­ment in dig­i­tal learn­ing design.

There is a grow­ing trend for researchers in the field of psy­chol­o­gy to use games in their exper­i­ments. This inter­view is part of a series inter­view­ing pio­neers the field of gam­i­fied research who have used Gorilla to devel­op their exper­i­men­tal designs.

For what areas of research have you used Gorilla?

I got into look­ing at the neu­ro­science of edu­ca­tion, I sup­pose, part­ly because my hus­band was work­ing on dyscal­cu­lia as an inter­est­ing research field in neu­ro­science. I work at the other end of the spec­trum in the class­room, in edu­ca­tion with teach­ers and learn­ers. With teach­ers of spe­cial needs, I had the chance to observe some of the dif­fi­cul­ties that stu­dents have and one of them, for exam­ple, is that, although they can count, they can’t manip­u­late num­bers. It’s almost as if they see the count­ing words as being a bit like the alpha­bet, a kind of arbi­trary string of sounds. If I were to ask you what’s the rela­tion­ship between the let­ter K and the let­ter P, you wouldn’t know what I was talk­ing about. What do you mean, rela­tion­ship? There isn’t one; it doesn’t make sense. For dyscal­cu­lia learn­ers, you say what’s the rela­tion­ship between the num­ber 9 and the num­ber 13 and it doesn’t mean a thing to them, because they don’t see num­bers as being made up of other numbers.

How did you use games to help chil­dren with dyscal­cu­lia devel­op rela­tion­ships between numbers?

What spe­cial needs teach­ers do is to intro­duce manip­u­la­tion of objects. So you can have a set of three beads rep­re­sent­ing the num­ber three, and then have to relate that to the digit 3. And then you have two beads relat­ing to the digit 2, and you have to see that you can com­bine those to make five beads. So now you can see you’re bring­ing those two togeth­er, you count up how many there are, and you can relate it to the num­ber. In the dig­i­tal game, if you’re given a goal to make a set of five beads and you’ve got a play area where you’ve got ones, twos, threes, fours and sixes — you can either split these or you can put them togeth­er to try and make the goal of a set of five. So it’s about expe­ri­enc­ing the rela­tions between num­bers in order to make a given number.

The frac­tions game we devel­oped is sim­i­lar. You have a rod of a par­tic­u­lar length and you’ve got to make halves, and quar­ters and so on by using a vir­tu­al knife to divide it up. So you’ve got things you’ve got to try to con­struct by split­ting or putting things togeth­er. In both cases, it’s giv­ing the child a micro world which is behav­ing in a way that helps them learn about the behav­iour of the objects in that world, a con­struc­tion­ist approach to learning.


Could you give us a bit more of an idea of what con­sti­tutes a con­struc­tion­ist game?

The prin­ci­ples are that you’re cre­at­ing a world in which the con­cep­tu­al nature of what you’re doing is rep­re­sent­ed in actions and trans­ac­tions with­in that world. It’s not like hav­ing mul­ti­ple choice ques­tions when you say which of these com­bi­na­tions will make five and they pick one. They are actu­al­ly con­struct­ing the goal them­selves, so it’s a very dif­fer­ent kind of learn­ing expe­ri­ence. They’re never told they’re wrong, it’s just, ‘Whoops, I didn’t make that. Let me try again!’. The feed­back is infor­ma­tion­al feed­back in the way that you get infor­ma­tion­al feed­back in the world. If you’re try­ing to kick a ball into a goal and it goes a bit too far to the right, you’ve got to angle your body in a dif­fer­ent way. It’s that kind of imme­di­ate intrin­sic feed­back on your action in rela­tion to a goal that helps you judge for your­self how to improve that action.

Could con­struc­tion­ist prin­ci­ples be applied to areas out­side of math­e­mat­ics, lan­guage for example?

Absolute­ly. You’ve got a lot of con­struc­tion going on in mak­ing words out of syl­la­bles, sounds out of phonemes, graphemes which relate to phonemes, sen­tences that build from words and from claus­es, and so on. There has cer­tain­ly been work done on how to help chil­dren under­stand the rela­tion­ship between graphemes and phonemes. For exam­ple, you might get a sound of a phoneme and you’ve got to iden­ti­fy which let­ters you have to put togeth­er to make your phoneme sound the same. Then you might use phonemes to make up a par­tic­u­lar word sound that you’re given, and try to con­struct the right phonemes to match the sound. Things like that can cer­tain­ly work for the con­text of language.

You men­tioned that the pur­pose of cre­at­ing a game for your inter­ven­tion was to cre­ate a world which the child could manip­u­late, enabling con­struc­tion­ist learn­ing. Did you con­sid­er using aspects of gam­i­fi­ca­tion to increase atten­tion and motivation?

One of the prin­ci­ples we had right from the start was that we stripped down the visu­al aspects of the game as much as we pos­si­bly could to just the things you’ve got to focus on to get the con­cep­tu­al idea. So there was no back­ground, there were no pic­tures, there were no flop­py bun­nies or hop­ping frogs or any­thing else! There was also no vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment or the kinds of things that games typ­i­cal­ly have where you’re in a place and you’re doing some­thing in that place. And the chil­dren were fine with it. In fact I remem­ber one lit­tle guy who was talk­ing to him­self and the beads say­ing, “Okay, you red guys, you’ve got to come over here and meet these pur­ple guys, And you’ve got to get togeth­er.” And then he said, “This is the best game ever.” He was con­tribut­ing his own imag­i­na­tion for the con­text, and just got so excit­ed by suc­ceed­ing; that’s all they need.

There’s a lot of dis­trac­tion in all that detail in the vir­tu­al game envi­ron­ment and I don’t think it’s nec­es­sary for chil­dren. Moti­va­tion should always be in try­ing to achieve this goal, and the goal should always be some­thing which is con­cep­tu­al­ly dri­ven. An awful lot of games make the goal extrin­sic to the game itself, so you get some kind of reward if you’ve done the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion cor­rect­ly or some­thing. There’s no inter­nal rela­tion­ship between the reward and get­ting the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion right. For our con­struc­tion­ist games, the reward is match­ing the goal. That’s all there is to it and that’s how we learn in the world. The goal when you’re a tod­dler is to walk across the room with­out bump­ing into the chair and it’s sat­is­fy­ing when you man­age it.

Are there any aspects of game design which you would like to be able to incor­po­rate in the future?

Some­times it’s good to get learn­ers work­ing togeth­er, so they’re decid­ing things togeth­er. One of them might say, “I think that’s an R”, and the other one, “No, I think it’s a P”, or some­thing. Then they’ve got to lis­ten to it again and come to an agree­ment. It’s a way of them moti­vat­ing each other to lis­ten more care­ful­ly. With col­lab­o­ra­tive learn­ing, some­times you can get more bangs for your buck.

You could also have a mul­ti­play­er approach. We had a design a while ago where there was one child who had to describe to the other what they had to do in order to build a tower. Only one child can do the con­struc­tion but they can both see what hap­pens. So the child giv­ing the instruc­tions knows if you haven’t made what they want­ed to make. You can also have com­pet­i­tive games although we haven’t done that because there’s so much anx­i­ety around with maths that you don’t want to increase it. But some kids love it any­way, so that could be anoth­er direc­tion to take.

This inter­view is part of a wider series of inter­views look­ing at gam­i­fied research. Make sure to fol­low this link to have a read through them.

Sid Prab­hu-Naik

Sid is a PhD stu­dent based in the Depart­ment of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy at UCL. He is work­ing part time with Gorilla cre­at­ing a suite of fun games to col­lect research data to bet­ter under­stand some of the cog­ni­tive mech­a­nisms behind lan­guage devel­op­ment. He is also look­ing at how aspects of gam­i­fi­ca­tion itself can con­tribute to more moti­vat­ed, atten­tive, and ulti­mate­ly suc­cess­ful learn­ing strategies.