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Unpacking Buzzwords: What Educators Have to Say About Gamification, SEL, Virtual Learning and More

Unpacking Buzzwords: What Educators Have to Say About Gamification, SEL, Virtual Learning and More

What are we not talking enough about in the world of education? What do education buzzwords really mean? And how often are we actually asking teachers for their input on these topics?

These are questions I recently asked a group of past Educator Summit attendees to discuss.  

We began with this article on 30 Of The Most Popular Trends In Education from TeachThought. We talked about how these trending issues affecting the classroom, how they are perceived amongst educators, and how they have evolved over time? The educators who took part in this discussion were from all over the country and work in varying roles and settings. But, despite these different lenses there were a several common themes that bubbled up.

1. We need to clarify what the buzzwords mean. A good example was understanding the differences between ‘Gamification’ and ‘Game-Based Learning’

Throughout our discussion, it became obvious again and again that truly understanding a term and its implementation model is critical. One example of many came when we were discussing gamification versus game-based learning. Consensus among the educators was that there is a lack of baseline knowledge in understanding the differences between these two concepts—not just in the classroom, but at a higher, more theoretical level too. In this case, and in others, too often the terms are used interchangeably yet they are really different models. ‘Gamification’ a broad term that refers to the process of infusing competition into activities that usually would not be thought of as a game, like assigning grades, or earning Scout Badges, or stockpiling rewards points with exclusive credit cards. It is basically the “last one home is a rotten egg” approach to any activity, turning the event into a competition or game. ‘Game-based learning’ on the other hand, is about games being a conduit for actual learning—like using card games to teach math, or playing John Hunter’s World Peace Game to challenge students to dig into critical social issues. The approach allows students to find learning in an activity that was developed to be played as a game.

In the case of gamification versus game-based learning—and plenty of other trends—understanding the nuances between specific terms and recognizing when you are applying one and/or the other makes all the difference. Any time you’re approaching a new education concept, starting with a clear explanation and understanding of the underlying philosophy is critical to developing a strong implementation. Knowing the right language is always important.

2. SEL works—when it’s well-implemented

Social emotional learning (SEL) is one of the most buzzed-about education topics of the moment. So it’s no wonder this spurred a long conversation, not because the group was against SEL, but because the collective feeling was that it isn’t being deeply understood and implemented with fidelity. Too often, the changes SEL implementation produces are mostly surface-level. When asked what has changed in their district, one coach offered up “How I talk to my players” while another teacher called out an increase in the number of posters on the walls. These steps are a beginning—but they’re a big step from a full SEL implementation.

True SEL is intended to be school-wide and brings with it systemic change that is deeper than posters on the walls and trophies for every child. This group of educators, while loving the idea of SEL, felt that the intended complex, pedagogical implementation model was being watered down in a superficial approach—in short, the epitome of a buzzword. So, what’s the key to meaningful SEL? As with most education initiatives, buy-in and strong professional development are critical to success. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a great place to start. This organization provides step-by-step support in developing a robust SEL program, including training, research, and resources for educators at all levels.

3. Virtual learning still needs to be educator-driven

Educators see the negative headlines about virtual programs, but they are able to read between the lines too. The educators in our group recognize that there have been significant missteps, but they all agreed that where virtual programs fall down is when programs don’t consider the still-critical role of the teacher. When students are simply provided with digital curriculum and told to ‘get to work’, the student and the program is being set up for failure. A highly involved primary teacher always needs to be present (whether virtually or in-person) as a facilitator of digital resources and support system for the student. Virtual learning is still a collaborative, interactive process that relies on educator expertise—not a plug-and-play easy way out. The idea of digital resources being the silver bullet and a replacement for educators is simply not true—they are tools in the toolbelt of passionate educators. When teachers are at the center of the implementation model, virtual learning really can provide flexible, personalized, powerful, and effective alternatives for students.

When all is said and done, what came to the surface through this group conversation on education trends is that all educators want to make a difference. Regardless of which ever buzz word is currently trending, educators want to reach students, and they want to continuously build on their foundation of pedagogical knowledge. They want to teach and be taught, and they want new approaches to be implemented with fidelity, not lip service. Change is always challenging, but when educators see that the new thing can truly have positive impact, they’re up for the hard work.

Want to take part in conversations like these yourself? Apply for a FULL SCHOLARSHIP to our upcoming Educator Summit in November and become a part of our next educator cohort!

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Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently the Educator Initiatives Manager. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she learns something new and exciting every day.