NPR’s “math guy” on video gaming as the future of math education

The
only issue more worrisome than the agonizingly slow improvement in the math
achievement of American students is what to do about it. Abandoned solutions to
this decades-old challenge litter the educational roadmap like so many wrecks. Remember
“New Math” in the 1960s?

The
experts aren’t necessarily running short of ideas, but, like many experiments
for improving education, new schemes often work best in small, intensive
classroom situations then fall apart when they leave the hothouse for
larger-scale application.

The
latest idea gaining traction is using computer video games to teach
mathematics. Educational technology companies are pushing specially developed
games. But popular and big-name gaming staples like “World of Warcraft” may be effective research
templates for teaching math concepts to elementary and secondary students. For
the ignorant, like me, this hugely popular computer video game is played online
and involves many players at once, with each player controlling a character
that explores the landscape, fights monsters, completes quests, and interacts with other players. Some
teachers have been experimenting with the game in math classes for the last
four or five years and there are websites designed to help teachers adapt the
game (see here).

Stanford
University mathematician Keith Devlin is a “World of Warcraft” believer. America
now has the know-how to develop computer games and puzzles to teach math, as
well as other subjects, he believes. In less than a generation, American
students could once-again shine. Devlin is a prolific author and is Stanford’s
Carl Sagan Prize winner and executive director of the university’s
Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (see here).
The institute studies how people use technology and how it can be designed to make
it more usable. But Devlin is probably best known as the Math Guy on
National Public Radio.

Devlin
made his pitch for educational virtual gaming at the Educational Service Center
of Central Ohio (ESCCO) last Wednesday, where he spoke and participated in a
panel discussion concerning educational gaming technology. State Superintendent Stan Heffner
participated, too, along with David Ferrero, chief STEM advisor for the Bill
& Melinda Gates Foundation; Brian Boyd, founding principal of the Dayton
Regional STEM School; and Aimee Kennedy, principal of Metro High School. The
forum was co-presented by the ESCCO, the Nord Family Foundation, and the Fordham
Institute.

“Math is still a hard subject but using
virtual gaming and puzzles will certainly improve learning,” Devlin said in an
interview after the meeting. “Not everyone is going to like it. Not everyone
even needs high-level math but everyone needs some math.”

Using
computer games in education could at least partially overcome the age-old
problem of learning math being a drudge. Traditional ways to teach math can be cold and dissociative,
Devlin said. “It doesn’t help if you a dress up a math lesson as a word
problem. First of all (word problems) ask you stupid questions: ‘There are
three pipes emptying into a pool. How long does it take to fill up?’ It’s
better to ask, `How long before an Amazon server fills up with data? When will
the server overload?’ The math is the same. That’s the math those companies
use.”

Devlin became interested in the
potential of computer games by observing his own children. “My two really smart
kids became avid players. They were clearly learning something and the
engagement was powerful.” Eventually, Devlin started writing specialized games
for math education, such as an early effort to teach students concepts
of Cartesian geometry that they then used to locate buried treasure on an
island.

Some early ed gaming efforts were aimed
at children with autism and other learning disabilities. While autistic and
dyslexic children and others often don’t perform well on written tests, they
can demonstrate what they’ve learned using computer gaming, he said.

The
idea behind gaming is to involve students in the learning process, which is
probably a teacher’s most difficult challenge. In turn, a game provides
immediate feedback. The more a student learns, the better he or she performs. “The
sense of ownership of what’s being learned is tremendous,” Devlin said.

Virtual games also attempt to simulate
a real learning environment. “If you go and live in Italy you will quickly
learn Italian,” he said. Similarly, if a virtual computer game can illustrate
the real world and how mathematics relates to that world it will be more
meaningful and learning could be easier. “If you can interest people in any of
the many things in which math is useful then the math will flow.”

Devlin believes a $500 million national
effort could develop computer educational games as tools for math, science,
history and other subjects. “We need to do it in stages. Start small and pick
off bite-size chunks,” he said.

First, game experts and teachers need
to develop better games. Although millions of children avidly play the games,
it has been difficult to pin down exactly what works for educational purposes
in a game and what doesn’t. Lots of factors are at play such as graphics, animation and characters; behavioral
science; and how the user interfaces with the game. Most early gaming ideas didn’t work or
didn’t work well because game designers didn’t understand how students learn
through a game. Especially difficult is avoiding the situation in which a
student does well at a game simply because he’s a good gamer, but doesn’t learn
much subject matter.

Educational game publishers, a
small but growing group, still peddle a wide variety of quality from junk to
not bad. Devlin is confident education games will continue to improve,
especially if students are using them and that classroom data is fed back to
game developers. Pennsylvania has launched an effort to eventually use
games to teach math and science in schools (see here). Microsoft and other software companies
are actively developing new games to market to the education community (see here and here).

Games and puzzles – at least the good
ones – are built on mathematical concepts. Students may or may not do well but
they interact with math and they end up knowing what it’s like to do math in a
fashion similar to someone playing on a piano. “I’m lousy at playing a piano
but I know what it’s like to play one,” Devlin said. “Kids may be lousy at math
but with educational gaming they will appreciate and understand how math
works.” The games, however, don’t make math a snap. “Math is hard but doable.
The only question is how far up the ladder do you get before you give up.”

Using games also does not reduce the
importance of teachers. However, the games allow a teacher to target a
student’s strengths and weaknesses by following the student’s progress through
a game’s increasingly difficult skill levels. “You can’t take the teacher out
of system. The moment you do that you’ve lost,” Devlin said. “But there’s no
need for the teacher to stand up and give an explanation. The teacher has to
make sure each child understands. “A YouTube video can give the same
instruction a teacher can at the blackboard....But the teacher still has to be
able to deal with whatever questions comes up.”

Many teachers may like this approach,
but many won’t, especially older teachers. “Some teachers will make the
transition and a lot won’t be able to. It’s a world shift. It could take 20
years before older teachers unable to adapt leave teaching,” he said. Many
younger teachers, however, are naturals. “First of all they’re all gamers. Many
young teachers come to me asking how they can use games to teach.”

Games are starting to be used in
college-level courses, especially in engineering classes where a group of
students may be asked to design a race car and successfully race it around a
virtual road course. That means library research to learn automotive and
mechanical and electrical engineering concepts or bouncing ideas off professors
or other students. “The only way to drive that car around the course is by
covering the math. It’s a whole engineering project,” he said.

Using educational games to teach math
also won’t dumb it down, Devlin argues. “If you want to be an engineer or
scientist you still have to be good at the symbolic stuff,” he said. But many
others can use algebraic concepts without the Xs, Ys, and Zs. After all, Devlin
said, algebra was developed by Arab traders, not by rocket scientists.

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