Friday, April 25, 2014

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

I should start this post with a bit of a mea culpa. In my CTV news clip about using Minecraft to show math work, I improperly referred to "gamification" of the classroom.  "Gamification could be the future of education," or something like that.

The distinction is probably easy to miss.  If one is playing a game in support of one's learning, perhaps you could be said to be gamifying your learning (if that's even a word).  "Gamification", though, refers to using game-like elements in the classroom, not necessarily inside a game environment.  "Game-based learning" refers to using a game in support of your learning.

This article by Jordan Shapiro is the most well-explained thing on this topic i've seen.He talks about how gamification systems are seen in places like coffee shops, with their loyalty programs.  Gamification, I think, broadly, could be said to be about modifying human behaviour to better reach a goal (free coffee, perhaps, or better learning outcomes in Math class).

I loved his examples of video games we learn from.  I agree:  students learn from every game they play, whether it's the new "2048" app craze (powers of 2), Angry Birds (physics/geometry), or Call of Duty (single-minded concentration and pursuit of goals, teamwork, reading and writing skills when playing online with others, communication).

It's interesting how viewpoints have changed on the video game issue.  I remember even 6-7 years back debating their merits with students.  It would seem they have been allowed into mainstream culture (and educational culture) in a way that wouldn't have seemed possible even a few years ago.

Here is where I write a letter to my 13 year old self:

     Dear Matthew,

     20+ years from now, you won't have to hide your comic books, and video games will be everywhere.          Have faith and be patient.  Let's hope Zack Snyder doesn't ruin Bruce Wayne like he ruined Kal El!  PS:      you have two children and you don't have time to play games, but all libraries have lots and lots of comics      for you to check out.

    Older, more bearded you.

But seriously though, the games I did play, I often played in a completist way- finishing every single goal in "Super Mario Galaxy" for example, or playing all the bonus content in "Resident Evil 4".  As years went by, I found I would focus only on the main goals, and not the side goals.  In Mario terms, completing the course, from start to finish, without focusing on extra start, or any extra content.

Therein lies my problem with gamification. If we are truly focused on big ideas and learning goals, side quests (for example to get "badges") might get in our way.  I also believe in naturalizing the classroom environment as much as possible- so for me, gamification systems would only get in the way of conversations and interactions.  Lastly, and my main concern perhaps, is that focusing on gamification systems might undermine students' intrinsic motivation.  Put it to you this way:  if I don't need a coffee, or even want one, and I notice I need one more sticker on my McDonald's card to get a free one, will I go?  Further, a quick search on this subject reveals many corporations are looking at gamification strategies to modify their consumers' behaviour, which doesn't bode well for it's future in education.

Game-based learning suits me a lot more.  Minecraft, for example, has been absolutely amazing as a tool in Math class.  But what's worth noting there is the differentiation:  students CHOOSE to become immersed in a  game environment, and only IF they can meet their learning goals with regard to the mathematical concept or big idea under consideration.  The other big thing here is that there are NO goals when one opens a world in Minecraft.  There are no badges, achievements, or levels.  Perhaps Minecraft is the least gamified of all games; even earlier sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto had missions that you could choose to complete (and most players probably did).

Game-based learning is no simple panacea.  Differentiation is key. Many games are too closed ended to be useful in the classroom beyond one single set purpose (and there is nothing wrong with that, in those instances).  Let students make choices about how they learn, and if it includes video games, so be it.  My 13 year old self, and perhaps some 13 year olds in your class, will thank you.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Ingredients for Math Class Are Everywhere

Remember those teachers who could turn anything into a teachable moment? Perhaps something happened on the playground, or the world outside the classroom, and they turned it into a lesson.

If you can think of someone, were you thinking of your math teacher? I started thinking about teachable moments in math when I was shown this on the playground.

The student said: "I have a dollar."  He had taken the original $2 coin and knocked the centre out with a hammer and screwdriver. 

The picture I took after the conversation was enough of a provocation on its own.  All that was needed was the question:  Is it worth a dollar?  If not, how much? The most likely relevant technique for coming up with an answer (area of a circle), is taught in the same grade level.  

Here is the task in a tweet, with a picture made with PicCollage and Skitch:

I've been thinking a lot lately about why we have always felt the need to rely on outside sources for our math questions, problems, and tasks.  Once you start to notice it, math is everywhere.  This is a mindset- much like the English or Social Studies teacher has when she finds articles, texts, or news stories that relate to her tasks, lessons and units all around her.  Or how about the Science teacher, who is always using the latest developments, innovations, and news as the raw materials for her lessons?

We can find authentic, meaningful and completely contextualized materials for math lessons all around us.  In planning for some Ministry of education work (a webcast on proportional reasoning), I spent a few weeks ruminating on what the tasks should be.  And then I went to the movies.  This visual sparked 3 days of work for 3 different grade levels:

In this case I was actively hunting for materials for rates problems, but my math antennae are up these days, and they are getting good at finding the raw materials for math.  Math is everywhere, and all we need is our tools like our camera rolls to record them.  

The value of the toonie ring could be $1.69, but that's not accounting for the differences in the metals, or their weights.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Road to #GeniusHour Math

The road to Genius Hour Math began with a bunch of sticky notes stuck on a blackboard.

Inspired by the concepts of 20% time, passion projects, and the great Genius Hour work happening in schools all over the world, I set out to explore what this would like for those of us who don't have our own class (and do math on a rotary schedule).

My hypothesis was this:  our math curriculum (an incredibly balanced and strong one here in Ontario) is short on things like the history of math, or the math that makes the world work, or bigger topics that are a little outside the traditional elementary math box, like infinity or dividing by zero.

I wanted my students to explore some math of their choice, so I had to see what topics they were interested in first.

As I am #poweredbykids, I started by watching their brainstorming.  My only question was this:  "what's something you wonder about that can be answered with math?" I exaggerate little when I say that I could plan my entire math program by just letting them ask questions.  Once the inquiry math mindset is open to them, all the old fears and hatred about math fall away.  They become questioners, and they start to make meaningful and important connections to the math in the world around them.

The board (now called the Wonderwall) filled with stickys with questions like:
-was math discovered or created?
-I wonder what the last number is?
-is there a pattern that hasn't been thought of yet?

One student wondered how much of a certain substance Toronto's notorious may had consumed, but that question, while mathematical, could not be answered.

These were clearly the raw materials for something really good, but more work needed to be done.  We took the odd question down to explore it, but mostly the board just sat like that, for a good two months. One day, reading the questions, it occurred to me what had happened with the brainstorming.

All the questions fell into one of three categories:  Googleable, estimateable, or needing more exploration.

Once this realization happened, the hour of our greatest genius was upon us. We watched this astoundingly beautiful video on the beauty of math.  I used Numberphile's video on cryptography to show how complicated mathematical concepts could be distilled into a carefully crafted explanation.  I showed Kid President's Pep Talk.  I explored dividing by zero with them to spark their minds.

As inquiry learning begins with questions, I gave them a simple organizer asking for a big question, and two sub questions that could be explored on the topic.

I discussed these with them, and offered feedback which would help focus the projects.  We developed some simple success criteria for what the project could look like.  The evaluation could not be pegged to a specific strand, as it usually is (although everything could broadly be said to be about number), so we mainly looked at evidence of mathematical thinking, and how it was communicated.  The Ontario curriculum front matter, particularly the achievement chart, is the math teacher's best friend.

From there, they ran with it.  The quality of a lot of the projects exceeded expectations.  Topics ranged from things like types of infinity, to music in math, to statistical analysis of a number of sporting themes, like determining who will win the NBA championship.  Activating the math of sports could be the topic for a whole other post.  Students do amazing work when they are shown how much math is in their favourite sports.

One of the most memorable included a live demonstration of poker probability, in which the dealt hands (under the document camera), provided proof of the odds that were posted on a chart of the wall beside.  Another sought to prove whether Santa Claus could make all his deliveries in a single night.  

The only slight challenge I would say is helping your students make more research-based topics come alive (like infinity).  Some projects were more research-based, and less based on mathematical technique, while the best of them had students actively developing their own mathematical technique to explore their topic.

I would encourage anyone to start on the road to #GeniusHour math.  It's worth it.  Too often (and for too long), we have let math ferment in its little silo.  Strands and units create artificial boundaries that prevent students from making connections to their own lives.  Math is seen as something that comes from teachers, in specific class periods, at specific times of day.  Finally, we are too often the questioners in our math classrooms.  Let your students be the questioners, and see what happens!