Teachers work very hard to remove randomness from classrooms, either through organization of time, activity or the direct assignment of groups to undertake the activity. A classroom is often only seen as effective when the random elements are minimized. But is that always the best option?
From the perspective of gamification, probably not.
Imagine the game of tic tac toe (or X’s and O’s). As a child, the game is fascinating. The naive player struggles at first to figure it out but it soon becomes predictable. The uncertainty of a game’s outcome doesn’t last and the pattern becomes easily recognized and boring. Without a level of uncertainty disengagement is inevitable.
Teachers can see this occurring when the students have done an activity multiple times and they start to just go through the motions. In an ESL environment this is best seen in grammar drills or listen and repeat activities.
On the other side of the coin however, teachers are confronted by the paradox of choice. If a student is free to do anything, that level of freedom will often lead to an inability to achieve anything. A classic example of this would be the empty white page syndrome which confronts writers (myself included).
The other potential pitfall of randomness in the classroom is that students may begin to feel like the activity is purely based on luck. This can lead to a decrease in their motivation as they feel they have no ways of affecting the outcome.
So what are the potential advantages of randomness?
First, people are prone to think of luck as a skill. When gamblers lose, it’s because of bad luck, but when they win, it’s often attributed to skill. Possibly the most important thing an element of randomness does is help to alleviate boredom and to refocus attention. When things are random or appear that way, the human mind desperately tries to find a pattern to exploit, thus focusing more intently.
The conclusion is a splendid contradiction.
With too much randomness in a class we end up with chaos and an inability to attach meaning to what is being taught. With too much control of the class we end up with order so tight that the meaning is incredibly artificial and unengaging.
The only solution, and one that gamification embraces, is to recognize the importance of breaking repetition with something new, while at the same time not falling into the trap of being new for new’s sake.