y design, students in my America 3.0 class this year have to earn achievements (special awards for reaching certain milestones, taking unusual approaches to their learning, doing an important or interesting thing a number of times or for building a portfolio of learning/doing in a compelling way). Unlike the acquisition of knowledge or the development of an assortment of  “do’s,” I haven’t published what the achievements are. Students have to think outside the box, experiment, try new modes of thinking and new ways of demonstrating mastery. All of this points to one of the key qualities of the gamified classroom: student self-direction.

In the gamified classroom, students have to take responsibility for their own learning, just like a player has to take responsibility for their strategy or their approach to a game. In World of Warcraft, for example, players can reach level 85 (the maximum possible level in the current iteration of the game) in an almost bewildering number of ways. Most players level through a few core mechanics (questing, 5-man instances), but there is nothing preventing a player from leveling exclusively through crafting (using in-game materials to make in-game items that confer some benefit) and never playing whole parts of the game. In the game, though, there are achievements, special rewards, that form their own metagame within the game. Achievements give structure, sometimes, to the game work that players do and lend direction to the efforts that players want to undertake. Some achievements are really quite easy to earn, others are vexingly difficult (because they represent doing something that’s just plain hard to do or because they require “grinding” – doing one thing hundreds of times over and over).

I set up the achievements requirement in the hopes that it would stimulate creative thinking in the context of student self-direction. Today, in our fifth class, I had the evidence that the achievement system was going to have the desired effect (at least with some students).

I arrived to class and a student was tuning her violin. Her classmates were attentive to what she was doing, but weren’t obsessive about it. I cocked an eyebrow and the student said “I want to earn an achievement!” I nodded and asked her to explain what the violin had to do with anything! After all, a player doesn’t earn an achievement for something random – it has to mean something. It has to connect. The student said “Janis Joplin.” I asked her what level she was talking about, just to be clear. She said, Culture, level 1. I said “I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but let’s hear it.”

She played for about 90 seconds with skill after which I asked her to make her Janis Joplin point explicit. She cited the story about Joplin’s free spirited approach to life at the University of Texas and remarked that Joplin carried an instrument around campus in the event that she wanted to play. We discussed free-spiritedness as a quality of the culture of the 60s, as compared to the more “square” (her word) culture of the 50s. Her classmates nodded with understanding.

And I gave her a class first achievement for using a prop to illustrate a point and told her to keep leveling.