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Learning Library Blog Learning from Pokmon Go: Three design principles for effective engagement
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Learning from Pokmon Go: Three design principles for effective engagement

By Tim Hudson
December 28, 2018
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Just 30 minutes from downtown Seattle there’s a great mountain hike that leads to a takeoff point for paragliders. Over the summer, I was hiking it for the first time with my family. Of course we teach our kids not to talk to strangers. But on this particular day, they were talking to everyone on the trail because nearly all of the other – mostly adult – hikers kept asking my kids, “Wait – are you finding Pokémon up here?!”

My older kids – ages 7, 9 and 11 – were playing Pokémon Go while we hiked. They don't have their own devices, so they take turns using my wife’s phone. My 9-year-old son was the one who suggested bringing the phone on the hike to catch Pokémon. I didn’t think there would be any on the trail, and apparently neither did most of the other hikers.

As a former math teacher who now designs digital math learning experiences at DreamBox Learning, I find Pokémon Go intriguing because it offers a unique opportunity to examine design principles for learning and engagement. Though Pokémon Go is far more entertainment than education, its meteoric rise confirms much of what we know about motivation from both research and experience. There is also much to be learned from the decline in Pokémon Go’s usage. My kids haven’t thought about playing in over a month, and the game creators have recently made improvements after a noticeable decline in users.

Because this recent phenomenon is highly instructive for educators, here are three design principles for learning and engagement that we can glean from Pokémon Go.

1. Novelty is motivating. Whether it’s a new app, technology or even a textbook, innovations need to be evaluated according to what we know about how students learn and what motivates them. How does the mind come to understand something? What makes us want to do something? For educators, Pokémon Go teaches us about designing experiences that motivate learners. We know from research that, “When not under high stress alert, the [brain’s reticular activating system] is particularly receptive to novelty and change that arouse curiosity.” Pokémon Go leverages this receptivity to motivate progress and delight users. Specific research-based and effective design principles used in the game are much like those we use at DreamBox: choosing your own path, having a unique and individualized experience, finding surprising things on your journey, collecting items, completing missions and leveling up. Declines in Pokémon Go usage might be because rare Pokémon were too hard to find and it was too difficult for users to train at Pokémon Gyms. The motivating elements were out of balance, so the designers are apparently making adjustments to re-engage users.

2. Make it purposeful and personal. In Pokémon Go, users have a clear purpose that requires them to go to certain places at certain times. Can we say the same of math or science classes – that students are going to specific classes at specific times with the clear purpose of achieving their own goals? Not usually. Similarly, Pokémon Go would not be motivating if everyone was told to go to the same place at the same time to get the same Pokémon. While I’ve seen pictures of crowds swarming the same place at the same time to catch a rare Pokémon, their goal is to get something they want.

Ideally, that’s how school would be – groups of students moving from class to class because they know what they need and where to find it. And when they get to class, learning experiences should be designed with the knowledge that young people are brilliant. Lessons should engage students in problems, questions and tasks that are accessible, require students to think for themselves and invite them to share their thinking and innate ideas. Just as my 9-year-old was the only one thinking we’d find Pokémon in the mountains, all students have ideas that haven’t occurred to adults. These ideas need to be welcomed in class. For an example of such lessons in math, read an excerpt of the chapter I co-wrote with Cathy Fosnot in a book about math intervention: Classrooms Where Children Learn.

3. Avoid contrived learning. When choosing educational resources, it’s important to define which part of your school mission or classroom curriculum is accomplished with that resource and then ensure students are engaged with authentic challenges and questions. Many articles have been written about Pokémon Go’s potential in schools, and one word that appears in almost every article is “could.” Educators are describing things that “could” be done with the game instead of “must” or “should.” For example, Pokémon Go could be used to get students interested in their community’s history because they’ll catch Pokémon at important locations with historical significance. That might be appropriate and engaging, but it’s a dubious proposition that students would care about history simply because they found themselves at a certain location. The game could be used to measure distances traveled by using math and geography. However, doing those measurements doesn't help players accomplish anything in Pokémon Go, which means it would be disengaging because it’s contrived and unnecessary to succeeding in the game. The hypothetical hedging about Pokémon Go in schools is very telling. This kind of speculation is imaginative, which is important for classroom innovation. But it’s an indication that the game is not inherently educational.

It’s essential to build relationships with young people and connect learning to things that matter in students’ lives and contexts that make sense to them. After all, the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students expect learners to "leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences." There’s no miracle app for learning, but better pedagogy and designing for purposeful engagement are keys to success with or without technology.

Tim Hudson, Ph.D., is vice president of learning at DreamBox Learning. Read his blog post "Forget 'Academics' for Middle School: Focus on Engagement and Authenticity".  

Read more articles about how to effectively incorporate the latest tools in your classroom on the EdTekHub.