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It’s a constant battle keeping students engaged in education in our screen-soaked world. Kids love learning, but they seem less and less in love with school and more and more in love with tech. Are kids becoming increasingly disengaged from learning? If so, how do we reengage our students in school and the love of learning? Have we reached the tipping point where tech in the classroom is necessary for engagement? Or do screens isolate kids and put them in a state of mental brownout so they’re too mentally fatigued to learn? Screens are also expert at teaching kids to self-interrupt, leading some researchers to hypothesize that virtual learning makes us all behave as if we have AD/HD. Kids seem to be increasingly telling us that real-life classrooms turn them off instead of turning them on. Today’s GKIS article highlights the benefit of tech – increasing learning potential in the classroom. Find out how gamification is being tested in education. and discover if your kids may benefit.

GetKidsInternetSafe does not actively endorse screen-free parenting. That’s not because we don’t support parents who choose that challenging but legitimate option; it’s because most of our customers enjoy the benefits of screen technology and choose to manage safety rather than block screen use. Not only do we support them with our Connected Family Online Course, but we also offer filtering and monitoring recommendations with our Screen Safety Toolkit. In that toolkit, we also offer a bonus list of our favorite tried-and-true digital learning tools. Consider checking those out as you read through how digital technology is changing the landscape of learning.

Traditional Teaching Methods Versus Screen Tech

Traditionally, schools use teacher-led workbook activities, in-class discussion, and textbook-based homework that rely heavily on authoritative, structured instruction and rote memorization. Furthermore, instructional activities often span over 10-minute windows, which is a problem considering the typical adult attention span is only 15 minutes.[1]

Screen technology, on the other hand, is fast-moving, interactive, and offers the student on-demand selection at the click of a button. The opportunity to self-select content is empowering and gratifying. Teachers can also track the student’s learning process in real-time and gradually feed relevant and increasingly challenging content. The rewarding versatility of technology has led children to immerse themselves in their virtual worlds on average of ten hours a day. With this number of hours on-screen, many kids are creating brain pathways best matched with on-demand screen delivery rather than teacher-facilitated instruction.

Evidence of Disengagement

A 2014 Gallup poll of 825,000 5th-12th grade students found that nearly half of students surveyed felt disengaged in the learning process, and only 40% of their teachers believe their students were engaged. Reported numbers were even lower (26%) in high-poverty schools.[2] This finding is particularly concerning, considering that a student’s engagement in grade school is correlated with how well they will do in college.[3]

When schoolteacher and gamification enthusiast Scott Hebert asked his students why they didn’t seem to care about the lessons taught in school, they replied, “I don’t get why we need to do this stuff, give us a reason to care.”[4] They didn’t connect with the material and couldn’t figure out why it was worth the bother to learn it. Without intrinsic interest, meaning the task isn’t naturally motivating, they felt like they had to jump through meaningless hoops to learn.

Feeling controlled and having to do boring, difficult tasks without reason is a great way to kill a child’s love of learning. Not only will they not bother to learn it, but if the information isn’t relevant to them, they won’t remember it. Education needs to speak their language and meet them where they’re at. For most kids, that means reaching them in their virtual worlds. In support, studies have reported that 90% of students agree using a tablet will change the way they learn in the future, and 56% of high school students would like to use mobile devices in the classroom.[5]


Gamification was coined by computer programmer Nick Pelling in 2002. The concept of gamification is to take the intrinsic qualities that engage people in technology and create a psychologically more gratifying and humanistic approach to work and education, rather than our traditional function-focused approach.[6] A function-focused approach emphasizes efficiency, whereas a humanistic approach focuses on enjoyment.

Dr. See is a professor at the University of Hong Kong who teaches human anatomy and medicine. He noticed that video games and education have a fundamental structural overlap. They both require solving mental puzzles, recalling information, looking for patterns, working under pressure, communicating ideas, and working within a time limit. Because his students loved video games, he decided to use gamification within his classroom. By applying puzzles and games to course curriculum, like for the memorization of the names and effects of hundreds of medications, his students reported better motivation and more retention.[7] Why not have fun while you’re working?

Learning through gamification does not mean it is easy. Gamification is engaging because it requires the student to generate the material instead of being instructed to do so. It is not about making school easier. Instead, it allows the student to actively engage in producing and later recalling course material.[8]

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivators

We are psychologically motivated through intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Intrinsic motivators are important for well-being and consist of three psychological needs, autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We are psychologically satisfied and most engaged when these three needs are met.

Extrinsic motivators, on the other hand, use external rewards like grades, points, and praise to motivate and provide feedback. External rewards may become harmful to our psychological well-being when they’re the only reason for engagement.[9]

The ultimate goal would be to ensure that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are part of the learning curriculum for best motivation and engagement. Thus far, teachers have found this challenging.

Gamifying Lessons Maximize Intrinsic Reward

Video games allow for painless failure through the option of restarting where you left off with little consequence. Traditional school testing methods do the opposite. Typically, a failing grade on the test is the student’s final act of the lesson. That means failure has huge consequences. Gamifying class testing could reverse that process similar to video games by administering low-stake quizzes throughout the lesson. Frequent low-point quizzes give persistent students an opportunity to learn gradually over time and receive prompt feedback without feeling discouraged by failure. This alteration would increase the student’s sense of autonomy and competence, thus maximizing engagement.

Video games also drive a person to feel a growth mindset by offering ample opportunity to earn points for play. Gamers start at zero and go up from there. In contrast, traditional grading systems are based on losing points when students do not meet requirements. At the beginning of the semester, the student begins with 100%. As the year progresses, that score can only decrease. A student who has lost a substantial amount of points is demotivated to increase them, leading to a poorer score and a fixed mindset. According to an economic theory called the prospect theory, people have a particularly difficult time choosing activities when they anticipate a loss.

Imagine how beneficial it would be if the grading system was reversed to be more like a video game. The student would begin the semester with zero points and as the year progresses,  they could earn points as they complete assignments. This would give students a growth mindset for their education!


Educators have tested technology-assisted education models. For example, millions of dollars have been invested in AltSchool, a school that promotes a personalized learning platform through the use of technology. In Altschool, students are provided with iPads or laptops and given individualized learning activities. The school encourages students to learn at their own pace, developing the mastery skills needed to learn the subject. The goal is engagement and learning potential.

Outcome studies revealed that students who learned at their own pace did feel more competent and autonomous.[10] However, a teacher noticed his students were less connected with each other than before. They were more engaged with the technology than they were with one another. This may be a risk of technologically-assisted education models. The need for relatedness and connection is particularly important in learning because others provide feedback and perspective.[11] Authoritative instruction may trigger the reactance theory, which explains how people value autonomy so much they will “react” or do the opposite of what they are told to feel they made their own decision.

Quest to Learn

Another applied experiment for innovative education is Quest to Learn, a gamified high school in Manhattan that began in 2009. Many of the classes at the school are not internet-based but instead teach through role-playing. Students act out the responsibilities of a chosen profession, like learning about politics by impersonating a politician.[12] By narrating the character, a student generates the answers needed for difficult subjects.[13]

Because screen technology is in its infancy, innovative hybrid teaching models and outcome studies are in new stages of development. The ultimate goal is to create a learning environment that is comprehensive, fun, applies a growth mindset, and appeals to the student’s intrinsic reward system. As tech optimists, we at GKIS look forward to seeing innovate applications to education.

Thanks to Andrew Weissmann for his research for this article. For a glimpse into some of the benefits of video games, check out our GKIS article Is Your Child a “Professional Gamer”?

Works Cited

[1] Usnews.com Kids asked to learn in ways that exceed attention spans by the Hechinger Report

[2] Edweek.org engagement landscape

[3] Grabbing students by Lorna Collier apa.org

[4] The Power of Gamification in Education Scott Hebert Ted Talk

[5] Pearsoned.com Pearson Student Mobile Device Survey Grades 4 through 12

[6] Yu-Kai Chou: Gamification & Behavioral Design yukaichou.com

[7] School of Biomedical Sciences sbms.hku.hk Dr. See, Christopher

[8] Christopher See Gamification in Higher Education

[9] Kasser and Ryan (1993) A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals.

[10] Black & Deci, (2000) selfdeterminationtheory.org

[11] The Backlash Against Screen Time at School by Rob Waters

[12] Worldgovernmentsummit.org Gamification and the future of education

[13] Benware & Deci, (1984) selfdeterminationtheory.org

Photo Credits

 1. Unsplash by Tonny Tran

2. Flickr by Carol VanHook

3. Flickr by Todd Jesperson

4. Flickr by Randomus

5. Flickr by Denali National Park

Andrew Weissmann
Andrew Weissmann
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