Nine Things Schools Can Learn from Pokémon GO

We are wandering around our new neighborhood, exploring the lush Oregon terrain. An older man waves at us.

“You playing Pokémon?”

“Yeah,” my older son shouts back.

“There’s a Jigglepuff –” the man begins.

“Jigglypuff,” she corrects him.

“Yeah, there’s one of those about twenty yards that way.”

“We just found an Eevee,” my younger son says. He then explains what happens if you rename it before evolving it.

It’s a short interaction, but it’s the kind of conversation that didn’t happen a few weeks ago. For all the talk of Pokémon GO taking us away from our natural world and destroying relationships, I’m seeing the opposite. People are talking. They are waving at each other. They are getting together in teams to figure out how to find things. In a divisive social and political climate, I can’t help but think that a little Pokémon GO might just be what we need.

pokemon go

Is it corporate branding? Absolutely (though no less than the Harry Potter series). Is it a fad? Probably. Is it the first game to use augmented reality? Nope. But is it the coming of age moment for augmented reality? Most likely.

My guess is that it will lose some of its novelty and these really cool interactions we keep having will slowly fade. But right now something cool is going on and I think we, as educators, can look at it and ask, “What can we learn from this?” I realize that some people will write this post off ahead of time simply because it’s about something trendy and fun and those two things alone invalidate the ideas. But bear with me. What if something is actually trending because it’s awesome? What if fun isn’t such a bad thing? What if instead of mocking something like Pokémon GO, we attempted to understand it and maybe incorporate some of its best features into our schools?

So, here are a few ideas.

  1. Pay attention to the physical world: you can view Pokémon GO as augmented reality where the technology is “taking over” the physical world. However, there’s something else going on as well. People are looking up from their devices. They are leaving their step-by-step directions of map apps and exploring new places. They are walking around. People are realizing that this is something they’ve missed. Schools can embrace this idea of embracing observation in the physical world by bringing back field trips, finding ways to walk around, and allowing for more observation of physical phenomena. Schools can tap into this natural sense of wonder that often leads to deeper questions and better learning.
  2. Meet kids where they are: In higher ed, we talk about the “creepy treehouse” idea. It’s what happens when adults try to create things that are too kid-like and it ends up just being creepy. This is what happens when the history professor tries using Snapchat for homework assignments. But there’s also this flip side of relevance where kids appreciate when teachers are at least aware of pop culture trends. I realize that we don’t have to be “cool” with pop culture, but a well-time pop culture reference can go a long way.
  3. Use a Show and Tell mindset: In other words, let students bring in elements from their world (show and tell) rather than sending school home (homework). Let kids write about Pokémon GO. Let them create instructional blog posts and videos in a way that actually feels relevant to them (while also meeting the standards for functional text). The key thing is that it needs to honor their agency while also being authentic. This is why I’ve always started with Geek Out Projects and themed blogs.
  4. Break down the age barriers: When I was in Phoenix, we stopped by a park that was packed with people of all ages. Although it was 103 degrees outside, small kids, parents, teenagers, and empty nesters were all searching for a few Rapidashes. One of the things I used to love about teaching in a K-8 school is that my students had reading buddies from kindergarten. Over the course of the year, they grew close to the buddy that they read to twice a week at breakfast. It’s a small example of the power of multi-age grouping. I can’t help but wonder if there are more ways that schools can incorporate a multi-age approach.
  5. Start with conflict: Pokémon GO begins with the idea of conflict. There’s a specific challenge. You’re on a quest. Whether it’s a deeper narrative or simply the novelty of discovering new creatures, this conflict drives your participation in the game. Some people want to take over a gym almost immediately. Others want to collect more Pokémon. Either way, it is the constant conflict that creates a participatory narrative arc that keeps users playing (and often paying). The best lessons I’ve taught began with this sense of conflict. Students were intrigued by some kind of challenge and that sense of curiosity fueled their engagement.
  6. The power of play: If nothing else, Pokémon GO is a reminder of the power of play. It’s no secret that places like Finland have higher academic achievement while also providing more recess. People need play to think and imagine and run around. I’d love to see schools add more play time to the day, including middle schools.
  7. Incremental progression: In Flow Theory, people reach a higher level of engagement because the perceived skill meets the challenge. Things move incrementally as people progress. I have always been against badges and levels (especially things like AR points) but watching the progression in Pokémon GO has me wondering what it would mean to incorporate these ideas in a way that felt meaningful to students.
  8. Embrace intrinsic motivation: Pokémon GO works because it taps into intrinsic motivation. It taps into deeply human drive for novelty, challenge, and fun. As teachers, we can begin our lessons with intrinsic motivation in mind. We can start with the question, “Why would students want to learn this?” rather than “How will I bribe them to learn it?”
  9. Allow more slack: Pokémon GO works because you have hours and hours to play it uninterrupted (again, an idea from Flow Theory) and you have the permission to make mistakes. Schools can embrace this idea by slowing things down and going deeper. They can also modify the grading system to abandon averaging (which punishes mistakes and makes students risk-averse) in favor of a more standards-based approach.

I do not believe that Pokémon GO is the future of education. For what it’s worth, I still believe that the future of education is creativity and critical thinking. Always has been. Always will be. Augmenting reality is great. Creating a new reality is even more powerful. This is why I want to see schools embrace design thinking.

But I also believe there is power in exploring systems outside of education in order to find practices that we hadn’t previously considered. It’s why I’ve written about Steven Colbert or food trucks. Some of the best ideas are the ones we see outside of our immediate context. They jar us into thinking differently and finding innovative solutions to our most pressing problems. Pokémon GO is one of those things.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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12 responses

  1. […] Things Schools Can Learn from Pokémon GO”… #education #pokemongo […]

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  3. […] Nine Things Schools Can Learn from Pokemon Go […]

  4. Hi John,
    I am one of those people you dismiss in your opening. It is trendy and fun, but the reason why educators should not embrace this trend is because it is surveillance by a corporation. They are now monitoring and collecting location data from our children. This is not something we should encourage. Instead, we should help them critically think through the implications of our permission for this app. Nowhere in your post do you discuss these concerns.
    The other thing is Pokemon Go does not work with the basis of intrinsic motivation. You are constantly earning points, battling for gold, etc. It is built in classic game theory. There is always another level to achieve and to be recognized for. It is specifically designed to build compulsion in its users. That is not intrinsic motivation.
    I appreciate your attempt to draw some parallels from this cultural moment, but I think there is more that needs to be said before we just jump on the bandwagon.

    1. I definitely have concerns about data mining, though I have those concerns about many apps that are used in education.

      However, I disagree a bit with the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation piece. Yes, the game has badges, coins, etc. that all fit into extrinsic motivation. However, the desire to play the game is intrinsic. Kids are not paid money or given real prizes outside of the game to play. To make a comparison, if an athlete plays basketball for fun, I would describe that as intrinsic, even if there are elements of game theory in the game itself. However, a professional athlete is more likely to be extrinsically motivated by a multi-million dollar contract. So, it’s a little more nuanced.

      Thanks for the pushback, though. I always appreciate your thoughts and I love the way you provoke deep thinking in your blog.

  5. I have never seen so many kids out and about and walking around in my local community. And the amount of social interaction is really nice to see — people not only want to achieve the goals of the game, but they want to help others do so as well.

    Some rewards are intirnsic in the game, others are extrinsic. And it is doing something that we’ve had problems getting children to do……get out of the house and move.

  6. […] Nine Things Schools Can Learn From Pokemon GO […]

  7. […] For all the talk of Pokémon GO taking us away from our natural world and destroying relationships, I’m seeing the opposite. People are talking. They are waving at each other. They are getting together in teams to figure out how to find things. In a divisive social and political climate, I can’t help but think that a little Pokémon GO might just be what we need.  […]

  8. […] Nine Things Schools Can Learn from Pokémon GO – John Spencer […]

  9. […] Nine Things Schools Can Learn from Pokémon GO – John Spencer […]

  10. […] from our natural world and destroying relationships, I’m seeing the opposite,” Spencer wrote on his blog. “People are talking. They are waving at each other. They are getting together in teams to figure […]

  11. Hi John,

    This is a great post and one that I agree with wholeheartedly. I wrote a similar post a few weeks ago (I would love your feedback). Pokémon Go and AR: too popular to ignore – Mr. Hill’s Musings

    I agree that friendly conversations are taking place. I have also seen families and friends playing together and I think it’s lovely to see! Computer games in the past have kept kids in their bedroom and on their own, while Pokemom Go gets them exercising, interacting and exploring.

    Yes, there are dangers involved and these things should be considered and discussed, but I don’t think it should be discouraged.

    Great post. Once again, well done!


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