Wilmington Math Teacher Implements Classcraft, An Educational Role-Playing Computer Game

Jan 9, 2015

In a Wilmington classroom, students transform into some surprising characters—healers, mages, and warriors. WHQR’s Isabelle Shepherd reports that a virtual game is preparing fourth grade math students at Alderman Elementary School for the real world. 

Toth: “Alright, let’s take a seat real quick because we have a busy day.”

Students: “Yay! Yay! I like busy.”

Classcraft is a role-playing game, designed to be used as a classroom management tool. By working game mechanics into an educational setting, the virtual program has real world consequences and rewards for students. 

Brian Toth, the math instructor at Alderman, recently implemented the game in his classroom.  He’s currently the only teacher using it at the school.  Toth becomes the Game Master in Classcraft.  When his students answer hard questions and do well on homework assignments, he can grant them experience points, which kids can use to cast spells.  These spells are rewards for the students, providing various perks, such as going to lunch early, using their notes on a test, or protecting their teammate from damage caused by bad behavior. Damage hits can lead to consequences like silent recess.

According to Toth, Classcraft takes up minimal time—about three minutes at the beginning of class and one or two minutes at the end when he totals up the students’ points.  The day’s lesson begins with a random event.  Toth says this engages the students immediately:

"They sit there, they cross their fingers, because some of the random events are positive, some of them are negative where people can lose health points or people can lose experience points. So, they never know; it’s just a random event.  They look forward to that at the beginning of the day. Right after that, they get to use their spells that they can get from leveling up. So they all raise their hands and I’ll go one by one, and they can use a spell, whatever spell they have. So they’re looking forward to that."

Toth: "We are going to, uh, do our Classcraft stuff first. So we’re going to do our random event of the day. Alright, ready? 3, 2, 1… Human Shield: A random player takes all the damage for the class but gains 300 experience points."

Students: "What? Yay! That’s a good one. That’s a good one."

The random event does more than help focus students. It teaches them a life lesson. That’s according to Dr. Raymond Pastore, a UNCW professor who researches computer-based tools and gaming in education:

"Well, it teaches them that things aren’t always going to be equal, that there are random things that are going to happen. And that’s no different than real life. And that’s what happens when you’re playing a game. Sometimes things are going to happen that are out of your control, that are unlucky, and what it teaches you is, “How do I deal with this? How am I going to come back from this?”

Patrick Harrison, the technology assistant at Alderman, has a tattoo of an autobot from Transformers on his arm. He says he’s seen this life lesson about bouncing back play out in the classroom:

“There’s one student that is a perennial complainer that got silent recess as his random event.  It spun up, that’s what he got.  Even him, as a kid that will complain if you look at him funny, he just sat and was there for recess, and didn’t complain, didn’t get upset, just did it.  Later, he said, ‘That’s part of the game.  That’s how it works.’” 

Individual rewards and consequences are just one component of Classcraft.  In order to succeed in the game, the whole team has to work together.  Instructional technology professor Pastore says Classcraft promotes cooperation, which is valuable in a corporate context:

"If you go into any corporate, large company, any Fortune 100 company and you ask them how important teamwork is, it’s going to be at the top of the list, way at the top of the list because playing politics, learning how to deal with people, learning how to pick up the slack for people is huge. Learning how to communicate with all kinds of people is a huge skill that, I don’t want to say it’s not taught, but it’s only taught through teamwork and experience."

But students will inevitably move on to classes without Classcraft.  Will they still be motivated to succeed without the game?  Harrison says it’s like any other strategy teachers use; they just have to hope that some of the lessons stick: 

"That’s your hope with anything that you’re teaching. Any teacher has got their methods and their ideas and their things that they’re going through, that they’re pushing. And all that we can do is hope that some of it will sink in."