Psychology of Gamification in Education: Karenne Sylvester at Harrogate Online

Education & Technology

One of the most fascinating topics for me at Harrogate Online, was Karenne Sylvester’s presentation called:

Gamified language educational e-tivities: Chocolate-covered Broccoli or Honey-coated Peas?

I was thrilled to find that she was focusing on play and psychology, as they truly represent the crux of all learning experiences.

Karenne Sylvester was one of the earliest online adaptors of educational technology and had already built up a massive blog following when I started teaching online in 2010.

Her famous blog is called Kalinago English although she says that she focuses mostly on student blogging these days.

It gives me great pleasure to feature this creative force and passionate speaker in English Language Teaching here today. I must say that Karenne exuded intelligent charm and presence throughout her talk. She was THE HEART of her subject in more ways than one. I was very much taken by her flow and fluency in speaking from the heart and mind about a topic that remains a mystery to so many of us. May she be an inspiration to all of us.

To learn more about Karenne’s career and her gamification insights and experiences, sit back and enjoy this intelligent and articulate presentation. There is much to learn and be inspired by.

“I’ve taught in just about every way from Dogme, which I’m deeply passionate about, to spelling tests, and to exam prep. Across all this teaching experience, there has been one unifying puzzle – my student’s responses to pedagogical play……….”

Hearts and Heads


“The burning desire to get a better understanding of what’s going on in my students’ hearts and heads and bodies when taking part in digital activities or e-tivities, led me in September 2011 to return to the UK to do an MA in Educational Technology at the University of Manchester.”

The concept of Gamification in Learning

“What it is and what it is not”

“Looking at play as having always been a part of language education”

Karenne very eloquently describes the truths and myths about what gamification really is. I’m actually reluctant to summarise her points here, as she spins such a magical narrative that you’ve just got to listen to it directly to fully appreciate it. Her thoughts are truly engaging and beautifully expressed. Anyway, this is a very important part of her talk as she goes onto to define the role of play within the learning process ( about six minutes into her talk).

Play is a biologically-driven process and part of our evolution

Karenne outlines the many different type of games that exist, and outlines four types of fun: Hard fun, Easy fun, Serious fun, People fun. She describes the positive and negative aspects of different types of games before going on to say why she rejects some models in preference of GLEES.

What is she really talking about?

Short Game-Like E-tivitiES which practise discreet chunks of language. She says that a purpose other than play must drive the play experience.

Technology is opening new doors to transform traditional language games into necessary digitialised components. I find this very interesting as many of my ideas for online activities are inspired by traditional games in ELT.


Benefits and pitfalls of GLEES

Karenne uses a brilliant analogy to drive home the message of what a good gamified activity is, compared to a bad gamified activity.

Covering a pedagogically poor activity or dull exercise with a ‘game’ is like covering brocolli in chocolate and trying to enjoy the taste.


I think that this is what we’ve been struggling with in education since time immemorial – trying to make broccolli taste like chocolate.

I certainly favour the idea that our games must have clear educational objectives  or else they’re a waste of time. Yet, I feel that we can still allow for ‘free play times‘ beyond boldly explicit pedagogical planning. This would still be part of the overall framework and teachers would still need to know where the play could possibly lead.

Which begs the ultimate question:


Perhaps not until we desist from…

“The lazy slapping on of sweetness or reward-based systems onto pedagogical content without thinking through the relationship. This leads to the misconception that all we have to do is take our students to one of Skinner’s labs to press on a lever in order to learn.”

… Karenne’s words.

Karenne makes some very strong points about how education is in danger of being usurped by online technology giants. Her points are well-taken indeed.

Some online games use outdated grammar-translation methodologies to drive the learning. Most well-funded gaming websites are created by technocrats or non-teaching ‘geeks’ who are trying to cash in on the educational marketplace.

Yet, other games created by academics can be too narrow in scope. She bravely names some very big players in education who have created non-challenging, boring games, then apologises and says she’ll tell them how to fix it later 😉

Who are the big players? The technocrats and academics online?

Watch the presentation and find out for yourself 😉

What should we think about before using gamified activities?

“The game dynamics, meaningful choices, heroes, antagonists, constraints, progression cycles, layers of meaning, mystery, possibility, challenge and interaction with peers, are the things that need to be well-thought through. There needs to be a tie-in between the game objective and pedagogical objective.”

The good news?

We can go back to basics, continue to be influenced by traditional ELT games and transform them digitally ourselves, or else  critically evaluate the games we use instead of relying on giants and businesses who are too far removed from the classroom to add deep pedagogical nutrients to the mix.

That’s the heart of the matter.

We need to share more ideas through experiments and blogs and continue developing our concepts of how games in ELT should evolve.

Who’s up for the challenge?





Here are further resources to inspire you:






Shelly Terrell

Gamify Learning: 20+ resources by Shelly Terrell

Gamify slideshare by Shelly Terrell

Shelly Terrell and Jason R. Levine in WiziQ

Shelly’s article, powerpoint and many of her webinars go deeply into gamification. She is fully in tune with learner behaviour in social contexts and how we can harness that for fun-based learning scenarios. She approaches listening techniques in the You Tube recording of  WiziQ  ELT MOOC sessions through technology and games. She shares a buffet of choices and advises us to be selective. Teachers are challenged to create their own online listening games.

Her article above also links to many initiatives and examples shared with her by teachers all over the world on listly.

 Graham Stanley

Gamify your class by Graham Stanley

Graham Stanley and Vicky Hollett on You Tube

Digital Play

Vicky Hollett gives a wonderful introduction to Stanley Graham’s work on the above You Tube recording. He is fully immersed in gamification, and the website, Digital Play, is fully dedicated to playing and learning through technology. Beware, Vicky spent six mesmerising hours exploring this Aladdin’s cave when she ventured onto the site – not for the faint-hearted;)
Mau Buchler

Learn more about Mau Buchler here.

Tripppin’, stories, games and more.

Tripppin’ is a story-based gaming website online where students have to accomplish missions while networking with other students online. They     work their way through many  levels as they continue to  achieve objectives. This website is amazing.



Wait – something is missing – oh YES..!!

Why should students have all the fun?

How about gamification for professional development online?

Is it daring,  is it creative, is it realistic?

A combination of the above, it seems to me.

Is there a prototype?

Well, you may remember the Harrogate interview with Anne Foreman and Paul Braddock from the Teaching English /British Council website and facebook page.  Paul shared his passion about gaming at Harrogate and I tracked down his  Gamification School for this article.

Did you catch that?

Paul has developed a professional development game for teachers that includes use of inspiring multi-media resource rooms, challenges and video question boxes. The resources room has some creative multi-media tools and we are invited to contribute our ideas for tools and resources. When we contribute ideas we get extra points for the games. There is also a staff magazine and many other components to try out.

Here’s a little extract from the website description:

Within the game, there are a number of ‘priority’ challenges you must complete, each located in different ‘classrooms’. There are 5 classrooms in total. Go to classroom 1 to begin the game. You will see icons at the top of the page.  Single person icons are meant to be priority challenges that you do on your own. Two-person icons represent priority challenges that you will need to do with other people. Click on the icons and you will be taken to a new page which will tell you what the challenge is and the instructions on how to complete it. For each priority challenge completed, you will receive 1 point for your group.”

Please feel free to share more gamification links, comments or suggestions in the comments area below. I can make a collection on Pinterest.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Vygotsky.

“Pedagogy must be oriented not to the yesterday, but to the tomorrow of the child’s development.”

Here’s to child development and our own tomorrows through professional development:)

Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

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