Redesigning high school through gamification

By Juan Roa

October 22, 2020

A couple of years ago my team and I were given the task of updating the curriculum for economic and risk-literacy in secondary education in Colombia. Part of our mandate was to design a way to introduce this program to the classrooms, including outlining how the students should be taught, by whom, when, etc. I thought I was up to the first challenge, but how to make it “cool” seemed harder.

Let me provide some context.

The existing curriculum, mainly geared towards 12-18 year-olds, focused on the banking system and related financial concepts.

The materials that accompanied it came in a toy briefcase like one a CEO would use — hardly appealing to the majority of students who weren’t from a middle-class background, and effectively signalling to students from indigenous or rural backgrounds that this was not for them.

In Colombia, only 10% of banking infrastructure is in rural or indigenous municipalities. Half of young Colombians don’t own a bank account. In other words, the learning materials were designed for a reality that only a small subset of students could relate to.

Furthermore, Colombian schools have the freedom to design their own curriculums. There are some minimum requirements, of course, but suffice to say we couldn’t force schools to implement our program. We had to give them an incentive to do so. In other words, we had to persuade teachers and school directors that it was worthy of their already limited time. And we needed something that appealed to the very diverse Colombian students, something that was relevant to all of them.

How did we solve these issues?

Welcome to New Pangea

To keep the program grounded and inclusive, we researched for six months in 21 public schools around the country. A team of two researchers stayed for a week at a school, attended classes, interviewed teachers, administrative staff, parents, and students. We included schools from all backgrounds and contexts. And we listened.

Thanks to that research, we developed a new frame of economy and risk-management built up around a wide variety of resources, instead of one purely focused on money. The new frame focused on protecting whatever the students cared about, instead of what their teachers or parents valued. It could be, for example, the environment, their bodies, friendship, their education, their parents, their school, among other popular subjects. We found out that Colombian students thought about their futures and wanted better economic conditions, but lacked the tools to manage the anxiousness of leaving high-school in a country with few opportunities.

We discovered that teachers wanted their students to enjoy their classes more and to achieve their dreams, but felt a bit too comfortable in their comfort zones, teaching the same math or social sciences class they have taught for 20 years.

We designed the pedagogical strategy and the materials through several iterations during the course of a year. I had taken an online course on gamification and I thought it solved several of our problems, so I took lessons with Javier Velásquez, a Colombian expert on the matter, from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm after work for a month or so.

My team had experience in Human-Centred Design and Lean design. We combined forces and designed a gamified experience for the classroom called “Nueva Pangea”, a nod to the theory that in the future the continents will coalesce again to form a second Pangea.

In the game, which was set in a post apocalyptic future ravaged by climate change and social and political chaos, a civilisation of legged fish contacted the students from the future, telling them how to prevent the collapse of Earth by taking action through risk-management.

Illustrations from the teaching materials: the students are invited to travel in time and leave school. In real life they would also leave the classroom: an absolute hit. Such a simple and effective way to engage them. (source: Nueva Pangea)


Illustrations from the teaching materials: the students learn from the legged fish called Zep why the Earth collapsed. It was drawn in caves where they see oil spilling, war, and over-exploitation of nature. (source: Nueva Pangea)


The students had to take part in missions that corresponded with the risk-management steps developed in our learning material: understanding what they value, identifying threats, prioritising the risks, and managing one of them.

They received pieces of the story, individual and team points, skills, collectible stickers, and traditional grades. By the end, depending on their work, they received a different ending of Nueva Pangea’s story. Constant piloting, monitoring, and evaluating our work on schools was essential to accelerate and refine the design process. Students loved the game and participated happily. Three out of four students graded their learning experience, the team-work involved, and the ease using the materials as excellent. 80% felt that what they learned was relevant to them.

But the teachers were harder to convince.

How about a do-over?

After a one-year pilot, we had developed innovative learning materials, but they were hard to sell to teachers. Frankly, they are asked for a lot and don’t get a huge salary. Some of them worked two jobs or distrusted the Ministry of Education. In addition, most of them decided not to participate because economic and risk-management is a no-man’s land. Math teachers believe it is the responsibility of social sciences’ teachers and so on. We were more successful among younger teachers.

We designed a game table for each subject to let teachers know what lessons on their subjects’ curriculums they could teach playing Nueva Pangea, but it was not enough. In hindsight, we should have maybe developed marketing and communication strategies to take teachers’ needs into account. But it was difficult because the teachers lacked time and energy, both of which were necessary to take part in our innovation. We trust that showing them the results of the pilot phase, and several testimonies of their colleagues that we collected, will help us engage them more effectively in the future.

Today, a digital version of Nueva Pangea is being developed — good news for students with smart-phones and the internet.

Nueva Pangea’s map: from the first to the last version.


Group identity was important: the teams competed against each other, but there was camaraderie inside each group. Some students designed pins (like the one shown above) and other team symbols that were not even in the game. 


“Document 26”: the conceptual, pedagogic and operative principles of our program.  (source: Nueva Pangea)


The teacher’s Guide. (source: Nueva Pangea)


The student’s Guide: students completed this travel log after each mission. They collected the stickers and pasted the pieces of the story inside. We provided one guide to each team. A 40-students classroom would have 6 or 7 teams. (source: Nueva Pangea)


This article is curated from Apolitical.

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