Why I Won’t Make Our Math Games Easier 1

Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them …

is the first of the Common Core standards for mathematical practice.

It addresses two problems I see VERY often.

  1. Whether completing a worksheet or playing a math game, students just pick the first answer that comes to mind.
  2. If nothing comes to mind right away, or if their first guess was wrong, they just give up.

Coincidentally, most of my recent observations of K-12 education have occurred at exact opposite ends of the spectrum, with some of the most affluent private schools on the one hand and schools in the inner city and on American Indian reservations on the other.

I can tell you unequivocally that those two problems are more common in the latter schools. It’s not that children in those areas are less intelligent. I’ve spent enough time listening to their game suggestions to know that. All of the reasons these differences exist would take a whole lot of blog posts, and I’ll try to get around to that.

One major reason, though, is that they have not been forced to persevere. In part, perhaps, they are not forced because no one believes they could actually succeed.

It is also difficult for teachers in these settings to give students problems that require a great deal of effort. I’m not saying the teachers aren’t good. They often have too many students in a class, too little support from parents and too much push back from students who haven’t had to work very hard in math up until now and are both unwilling to try harder and unconvinced that it would make any difference.

In sixth-grade, my daughter, Julia’s science project involved measuring the angle of refraction in solutions with varying degrees of sugar. On her own, she looked up definitions of density, index of refraction and how to calculate the angle of refraction using Snell’s law and sine functions.  This is the type of project that I KNOW most of the students in some of the schools we visit would not be able to do before their sophomore year of high school, if at all. There is much more to this story (check back on Throw Back Thursday).

Julia doing a science experiment

Let me tell you what happened in fifth-grade, though ….

Julia decided to do a test of the effect of multi-tasking on performance. She did a cross-over study, collected data and all was going well until she needed to graph it. She didn’t know how to graph the data. She was 11 years old. I told her to sit at the kitchen table and think about it. She cried. She told me that she was going to have to sit there for THE REST OF HER LIFE. Her father told me that I was mean. After working on it for about 15 minutes, she finally figured it out.

If you think it is easy to sit and watch your child cry for 15 minutes without helping them, while your spouse glares at you in disapproval and leaves the house – well, then you’ve probably neither raised children nor been married.

My point is that getting ONE child to persevere is not a simple task, much less 30 or 45 children.

Which gets back to our game … 

We have game testers who try every possibility and file bug reports. One had to do with a problem in our newest game, Fish Lake, where the player helps sew together ribbons for a ribbon shirt. They need to drag ribbons 1/2, 1/3 or 1/6 of a foot long into combinations to make one foot so that all of the ribbons on the shirt are the same length.

As they do this, the number is shown on the screen, as in 1/2 + 1/6 + 1/6 + 1/6 = 1 foot CORRECT!

There are more ribbons than you need, so that at the end you can’t just drag the two or three ribbons that are left into the remaining space.

A tester filed this report

If I drag a ribbon to a random place on the screen, when I stop dragging it, it stays there and I can’t use it again. If I do that several times, I have used up the ribbons and can’t solve the problem. I have to hit the TRY AGAIN button and start over.

I thought about this for quite a while and then decided.

I’m not going to “fix” this. There are three extra ribbons. If you accidentally move one of them, okay, everyone makes mistakes, maybe you didn’t mean to click on that. If you do it three times, what exactly are you doing? I want to force people to stop and think. If they don’t read the problem and just randomly start moving things around, I want them to fail.

Oh, my God, did I just say I want students to fail? Am I going to educational hell or what?

The fact is, in math, there are right and wrong answers. You are more likely to get the wrong answer if you don’t read the instructions, stop, think, make sense of the problem and then persevere to find a solution.

You can throw a fit, cry, tell the computer you don’t want to try again. Your mom can call the school and yell at the principal. None of that matters. It’s just a computer. You cannot get ahead in the game without getting the answers right.

The challenge is on us to make games that are so fun that everyone want to keep playing, want to get to the next level, even if it means stopping to work on that problem until they get it right.

Making a game that people want to play that badly isn’t an easy task. That’s okay. If I can expect our users to work hard, they can expect the same from me.

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