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The future of piano teaching - gamification in teaching

The future of piano teaching - gamification in teaching

Jane McGonigal, The Future of Piano Teaching author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and other books, is a video game designer. In a TED talk from 2012,1 Jane tells her inspirational, emotional story of getting a concussion that did not heal properly. This is what happened: 

I was told to rest my brain—no reading, no writing, no video games. Through the slow healing process, suicidal ideation happened to me, where my brain started saying, "You want to die. You will never get better, and the pain will never end."

I started to fear for my life. After thirty-four days, I said to myself, "I am either going to kill myself, or I'm going to turn this into a game." Why a game? The psychology of games research shows that when we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, optimism, and determination, and we are more likely to reach out to others for help. I wanted to bring these gamer traits to my real-life challenge.

I created a new role-playing game called, "Jane, the Concussion Slayer." This would be my new secret identity. The first thing I did as the "Slayer" was call my twin sister and tell her, "I'm playing a game to heal my brain, and I want you to play with me." In reality, this was an easier way to ask for help than simply saying, "I need help." My sister became my first ally in the game, and my husband joined. Together, we identified the "bad guys"—anything that could trigger symptoms and slow the healing process. Things like bright lights and crowded spaces. We also collected and activated "power-ups," which were anything I could do, even on my worst day, to feel just a little bit good or a little bit productive. Things like cuddling my dog for ten minutes or getting out of bed and walking around the block just once. That was the game. Adopt a secret identity, recruit your allies, battle the bad guys, activate the power-ups. Although it was not a cure for the cognitive challenges and symptoms—these lasted for more than a year—even with a game this simple, after a couple of days of play, the fog of depression and anxiety went away. It felt like a miracle. Even while I was in pain, I stopped suffering.

What happened next with the game surprised her. She put up some blog posts online explaining how to play, and re-named the game, "SuperBetter." She started hearing from people all over the world who were adopting their own secret identity and recruiting allies, and subsequently they were feeling better while facing things like cancer, chronic pain, and even ALS. The game was helping them in the same way it helped her. They talked about feeling stronger and braver. They talked about feeling better understood by their friends and family. And they even talked about feeling happier.


Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. Gamification projects offer the opportunity to experiment with rules, emotions, and social roles. Read an optional library book on the topic being taught in class? Receive "Reading" points. Get perfect attendance and complete all homework assignments on time for a month? Earn an "On Target" badge. Work hard to ask the best questions? Get assigned as a "Lead Detective" role in science class. When playing by these rules, students develop new frameworks for understanding their school-based activities.2

Existing gamification projects apply these principles at vastly different scales. At one end is gamification at the micro-scale—individual teachers who gamify their own class structures. For example, Lee Sheldon, professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, discarded traditional grading in favor of earning "experience points," and converted homework assignments into quests.3 At the other end of the scale, Quest to Learn, a new charter school in New York City, uses game design as its organizing framework for teaching and learning. Game designers work together with teachers to develop playful curricula and incorporate game elements into the entire school day.

Ananth Pai, a businessman from Minnesota, went back to school and received a master's degree in education. He landed a job in an elementary school and based his curriculum on game design. In the classroom he gave students Nintendo games and video games. The learning was both individual and multi-player. Students played against students from their own classroom and students from all over the world who are at their same level. In eighteen weeks, his class went from below a third-grade level in reading and math to above a fourth-grade level.

Feedback and failure

Being able to fail and get feedback helps people learn better, which is what happens when you play games. There is no fear of a failing grade with a game. There is no fear of not being able to play the game again if you fail a level. The act of sincerely trying is what helps us learn. We can allow students to try and fail—not for a grade, but for an opportunity to get better. This way students can learn from their mistakes in a safe, fun environment.

Many studies show that students learn better by taking tests than by studying for a test. At the Quest to Learn charter school,4 the curriculum is designed by game developers. Students are allowed to keep taking the test until they get the grade they want.

Feedback is immediate, which is important to learning. Receiving feedback three weeks after a test does not help learning. We should not assess students on one single shot, which can be dramatically affected by their current emotional and physical state, including factors such as how they feel that day and how much sleep they received the night before. Instead, think about assessment as allowing students to get to their best at a time that is good for them.

How does it apply?

​In the articles and studies I found, there were clear points in common when incorporating gamification into education:

1. Games encourage collaboration. It takes a lot of trust to play a game with someone. Goals, trust, cooperation, and stronger social relationships are the result. When you first start playing World of Warcraft, there are a lot of characters that trust you with a world-saving mission right away, a mission that is perfectly matched with your game level. There is no unemployment, but something specific to be done. And there are hundreds of thousands of people there waiting to help you accomplish the battle. In another game, a titan-class ship in the online game Eve takes 200 real people about fifty-six days of real time to build, plus countless hours of preparation before that. Yet, many of these are built.5

2. Games are social, and they encourage social skills. Hundreds of millions of people use online games such as Words with Friends to stay in touch with family and friends that are near or far. We stay connected in a way we wouldn't without them.

3. In a game, we are likely to stick with a problem until we solve it. In real life, we feel overcome, overwhelmed, depressed, cynical. Those feelings don't exist in games.

4. Games provide positive feedback from levels, achievements, etc. We don't always get that feedback in real life.

5. Trials at East Carolina University show that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating clinical anxiety and depression. Just thirty minutes of online game play was enough to boost mood and long-term increases in happiness.6

6. Avatars are a way to express our true selves. A Stanford University study shows that avatars affect us in real life. Playing a game with an idealized avatar changes how we think and act in real life, making us more courageous, ambitious, and more committed to our goals.7

So, what can we do as a piano teachers and music educators? Tom Chatfield suggests the following:8

1. Instead of grading students in little increments and pieces, give them one avatar which is constantly progressing in tiny increments toward a goal.

2. Make sure to have multiple long and short-term goals. Get 5,000 theory questions right? Boring. Get fifteen paper or virtual pies by answering theory questions correctly? Interesting.

3. Give lots of different tasks. Answer ten questions. Come to twenty classes on time. Collaborate with others five times. Students can choose their own tasks.

4. Reward effort. Each time you do something, you get credit for trying. Try to do twenty questions? Get a badge. Get twenty questions right? Get a super, epic reward.

5. Feedback is crucial. It is hard to learn if students can't link consequences to actions. Model concepts for them, give them tangible feedback.

6. Provide an element of uncertainty. This is the neurological gold mine. A known reward excites people. The possibility of unknown (and awesome) reward at a random time is much more exciting.

Finally, a prescription: If you have children or work with children, or want to change the world, then get into the game with your kids. Don't fight the game trend from the outside world. Instead enter the game, play the game, understand how the game works. Meet children on their own territory.


1 that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.

2 AEQ-Lee-Hammer-2011.pdf. 

3 on-game-design-has-students-playing-towin/21981. 

4 quest-to-learn/. 


6 Effectiveness-of-Casual-Video-Games-in-Improving-Mood-and- Decreasing-Stress.pdf. 


8 reward_the_brain.

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