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 worked part time with Gorilla in 2021, helping create 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.