One of the most common questions I get is “What math games are you using?” Certainly there are some math app games that are far superior to others as they relate to learning. But a more important question is HOW are we using them. Let me tell you a little story.
When I first started with the ipads in my class I thought that if I found games that were valuable and educational that would be enough. I spent hours sifting through the app store and websites finding the “best” apps. These games not only taught and reinforced skills but asked students to apply math skills and critical thinking.
Cut to me looking over the shoulder of one of my most capable math students as she plays one of these educational games. Watch as my shoulders slump and I put my hand to my head and realize that she is playing the game on the easiest possible setting so that she can accumulate the most amount of points and brag to her friends. As Homer Simpson would say, Doh!
This is one of the reasons computers will NEVER replace teachers. Students need teachers to push their thinking and help them make connections. The truth is most of them will play at the easiest level, won’t think of this as part of their learning time but as a break, and worst of all, probably won’t transfer the skills out of the game. So HOW do we get them to do all of these things? Well here is a list I’ve come up with based on my experiences in the classroom. (No fancy research in this post folks, just good old fashioned teacher thinking.) If you have more please feel free to leave a comment!
- Establish the tone from the start: When we game it’s to learn. Set the expectation that students are to learn something, apply something they’ve learned, or find the connection with the other learning that’s been going on in class. Does this mean that you can never give kids a five minute “break.” I truthfully don’t know. It probably depends on you and your students. But if they automatically stop thinking when those apps are on their ipad then we shoot ourselves in the foot.
- Provide Clear Parameters: Apps with multiple settings are great because you can differentiate for students. If one group is ready to move on to division while another is still mastering multiplication there’s an app for that. But, you need to give students the direction for how to adjust the settings to suit their needs. First of all, they may not know what their needs are. (Although you would hope they would if we’re doing enough reflection in mathematics.) I have frequently seen students choosing settings that are too hard or too easy. Second, we need to still guide them and monitor that they are practicing at the correct level and challenge them as soon as they are ready.
- Set high expectations: Do you play Angry Birds? My husband will reply a level until he gets three stars before he moves on to the next level. This is what our students need to be doing. Sometimes games have low standards for what “passes.” Those are not my standards. Students need to strive for excellence and the highest achievement possible in these types of apps. Then they need to reflect on the difference between the levels of achievement and the changes they made to get to the highest level of achievement, which brings me to my next point…
- Be Present: Game time does not mean break time for the teacher. While students are working you need to be walking around monitoring all of the things above and pushing their thinking with questioning. Sometimes I even pull students for a quick small group lesson based on something I’m seeing them do, or do a quick table lesson or demonstration. When I talk with them I ask them; What strategies are you using to solve these problems? Is this game challenging you? Where do you see a connection between this game and the other mathematical work we’ve been doing in class?
- Provide Structure: If you can’t be present, i.e. you need this time to work with a small group, then you need to give the students some kind of guidance, purpose, structure, or accountability piece. Hopefully, if you’ve done all of the above, students do take this time seriously and enjoy being challenged to use their critical thinking skills. It doesn’t hurt to be clear about what you want them to get out of this time (your objective) and then ask them to reflect on the learning they did after. I often use a quick google form to check in on what each kid was doing that day or get some feedback on where they are at with a particular skill.
- Push for Transfer: At the end of the day, the students need to be able to transfer their learning. I frequently push them to draw connections between games and class work, ask them to reflect on strategies they use, and help them draw connections between the game work and class work. It can happen, but it may not happen naturally. Our students need us to help them transfer their learning and make connections between experiences.
- Minimize Collaboration: This is sort of a controversial statement for me. I love when students collaborate and help each other. But what I’ve noticed with the math games that are really challenging (like more puzzle based games) is that, inevitably there are a few students who are excellent at this type of thinking. The other students begin to rely on these few to help them get past difficult levels and, as a result, doubt their own ability to persevere and solve the challenge. If you have experts, that’s great, coach them on how to give hints or talk about the strategies they use to solve these challenging problems. They can be experts as long as they are teaching others how to be more successful not just giving them the solutions.
- Minimize Competition: Depending on your students’ developmental level the need to compete may be strong. Some students love to compete and it actually drives them to excellence. But if the focus is competition or trying to get your name on a high score board then students will be focused on that and not on the learning. I’m sure some people might disagree and if you’ve used this in your classroom with great success please share it, but overall I think competition places a focus on winning and not learning and that doesn’t sit right with me at all.
- Don’t make it an early finisher activity: This is kind of obvious. If you ask a student whether they’d rather finish up some practice problems from their book or play a game on the iPad….do I even have to say it? One of the first things I learned as a teacher was never make the “next thing” more fun than the thing you are doing right now. Kids will rush to get through work and slower workers will begin to feel left out and resent their peers. That’s not to say that you can never do it, but if it seems like the daily focus is finishing quickly to get a reward then finishing quickly becomes the focus, not learning.