Should our classrooms be like Mario Kart?

Mario Kart is one of my favourite racing games. And recently it has made me think about the implications of what’s happening in my classroom.

To succeed in Mario Kart, not only do you have to drive fast and stay ahead of the pack, you also need to know how to use power-ups. Power-ups are picked up by driving into the power-up blocks. When you drive over one of these blocks, the game will assign you with a power-up. However, Mario Kart likes to work on a handicap system. mario kart power-upsBasically the further you are ahead in the race, the power-ups you get never boost your speed. So if you’re coming first, you are only ever given banana peels and turtle shells as power-ups. You leave banana peels on the track so others slip on them or you throw the turtle shell at whoever gets in front of you. You are not given power-ups to get you further ahead. If you’re further behind in the race, the game will give you a range of power-ups like:

-star (gives you a huge speed boost and you’ll take out anyone you touch)

-thunderbolt (zaps everyone else in the race and makes them small so you can run over them)

And if you’re really behind, you get Bullet Bill, Bullet Bill turns you into a bullet and you rip through the track at super fast speed, blasting everyone that gets in your way. Bullet Bill is designed to give anyone coming last with a fighting chance at the race. Basically the power-ups gives everyone an even chance of winning all the way through the race.

So what does Mario Kart have to do with my classroom?

For anyone that has been following my blog, you’ll know that I’ve been implementing gamification with my year 10 science class. (Click here for more details) We wrapped up the first gamified unit of work recently. While I was evaluating the effectiveness of gamification, I noticed the leaderboard. The winning team had over 400 points and the last team had 30 points. (Points were awarded for completing and submitting class and homework tasks). So what happened to the team with 30 points? This team wasn’t doing nothing. They weren’t being lazy. I regularly helped them in class and saw them do their work. They just didn’t hand it in.

While I haven’t asked them why they haven’t handed it in (yet), if I was them I would say to myself ‘Why bother? It’s not like our team will ever catch up.’ It is like when you are so far behind in a car racing game that you re-start the race because there’s no point of continuing. In most classrooms, there’s some kids who are behind for some reason (went overseas for a lengthy period, have poor reading skills, etc). For many of these kids, it’s like being very behind in a racing game. Everyone is on their 5th lap while they’re still on their 1st lap. They want to re-start the race and have another go. But they can’t. How can schools and teachers give them power-ups like in Mario Kart. I want to give those kids Bullet Bill so they will still be engaged in the game. But how? And what about the kids who are always a few laps ahead of everyone else? Are teachers keeping the game challenging enough for them?

5 thoughts on “Should our classrooms be like Mario Kart?

  1. Alice, have you thought about using a seeding system to organise your next groups? Maybe you could take stronger students from the top couple of groups and group them with students from the less successful groups to work collaboratively.

    I think what you identified is one of the issues with pacified units that offer points. Students still struggle when they fall apart and are really working for external rewards. For some they just won’t like working for external rewards no matter what. Dean Groom has really got me thinking about GBL recently. It seems its not about points or badges but about developing units of work that provide challenge and the ability to try again when they aren’t successful. I’m not sure how to do that exactly but it makes sense. When you keep getting beaten in Mario cart why do you even want to keep restarting? Because its fun. Making our units fun and engaging will help to get those struggling to keep trying.

    Not sure if it makes sense but I’m working through similar issues to you.

  2. I completely agree, both about Mario Kart and this classroom dilemma. Again and again, I find problems with number-based solutions, engagement and equity. I have tried marking rubrics with various values and points-based activities, where student choice various tasks to make up a certain number of points. But, again and again, these noble endeavours either backfire (with some students working down to the minimum points) or fall flat and just seem like a joyless exercise for the students.

    It seems that a numerical system should be fair and provide incentive, but that just hasn’t been my experience so far.

    On a related point, Mario Kart – for all that I quite enjoy playing it – does seem unfair on the stronger players. My son, only seven years old, doesn’t mind because he is not that good at it. But when he gets better I can imagine this “rigged” system inflaming his sense of justice.

  3. Curious to ask, how long did your GBL runs? When they earn 400 or 30, over how long of a period? A term?

    Would it make any difference if you shorten the scoring period? And reset the shorter period, allowing the others to “catch up”, like stages in the Mario game.

    There can be extra work “power ups” if needed to earn extra points.

  4. Hmm, interesting proposal. I am currently reading “The essential 11″ and just finished reading, The Essential 55” by Ron Clark. In one of them he shares an anecdote of how he praised a student who was doing very poorly to their parent. The student didn’t deserve the praise, but was in a cycle of living up to the negative expectations constantly being put on him. The un-deserved praise worked to both bring the parent onto the teacher’s side, and give the student a boost in confidence. The danger though, was that the student could think, “I can get away with anything if I do poorly and still get praise.” When the student acted up then Ron Clark (his teacher) called the parent again, this time sharing about how the student is not living up to expectations.

    In another case he arranged for the principal to give a certificate of great potential to 4 students. 3 of them were his brightest most hard working students while the fourth student was someone doing very poorly and lacking self-esteem. The unwarranted award boosted the child’s self esteem and began living up to the higher standard. I think this woud be a good example of a sudden unexpected “boost.”

    Love the blog – exactly what I’ve been looking for.

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