- The education system in the US is broken.
- Grades are an outdated game mechanic. This is part of the problem.
- Replacing grades with other extrinsic motivations such as virtual currency is superior and will give students the motivation they need to learn.
Grades may be part of the problem, but they are not an "outdated game mechanic" because they are not a game mechanic at all. Very often I see rewards classified as "game mechanics" but they are not. The term "game mechanic" has a specific meaning to game designers; roughly speaking, a mechanic is a description of a systemic reaction to an event (such as a player input or a given kind of game state). A reward system that describes the conditions on which a reward will be handed out, and the exact rewards tied to what actions, would be a game mechanic. A grading rubric is a game mechanic. A grade or other reward itself is, in game design terms, a resource or a reward (but not a mechanic). Anyone who is going to speak of something as a game, needs to learn their terminology.
Second, and this is where a lot of "gamification" things fail: extrinsic rewards destroy intrinsic motivation. This has been documented so many times, I'm amazed I even have to say it. You could make a valid argument that by their nature as an extrinsic motivator, grades reduce a student's intrinsic love of learning. But to say that replacing one form of extrinsic motivation (grades) with another (virtual currency) seems flawed in the extreme. They have the same problem! Here's a recent example, where the introduction of 'badges' made students concentrate on earning badges to the detriment of their learning. Well, duh!
You might be thinking: Okay, Ian, if you're so smart, then what is the fix to grades? I would say that we need to do a better job separating the grade (assessment) from the actual learning. Let the reward for learning be the fact that you're learning something awesome and it's giving you new skills and abilities, and you are "leveling up" merely by learning it. I understand we can't do away with assessments entirely, but how about we be clear that they are assessments, not rewards? Young kids start out looking at the world around them with a sense of wonder; in theory, it should not be that hard to simply not get in their way as they enjoy learning stuff.
Look at any expert that is passionate about their field... say, a physicist. Do you think they were motivated to learn physics because they got good grades, or because they thought it was inherently awesome to learn about how the world around them actually works? For that person, this fascination with How Stuff Works is their reward, and as teachers we would do well to find out what makes it so fun for that person to do physics all day, and how we can show our students how awesome that is for them, too. And this is something that the external reward systems propagated by "gamification" systems simply doesn't seem to account for.
Let me be clear. As far as using best practices from the field of game design and applying that to make other tasks more fun and enjoyable, I'm a huge fan of doing this, especially when it comes to teaching. At its best, this is what "gamification" is, and I'm all for it. But all too often I see the term "gamification" used synonymously with "external rewards such as points or virtual goods" and that is something we must all be very careful with, because that may solve some problems in the short term but is probably ineffective or even detrimental to learning in the long term.