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Review: Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video games as a Medium for Learning

How can we rethink the current Math education paradigm to consider the wealth of available technology? Can video games teach basic Math skills or are they just a waste of time? Can video games help students to gain Math proficiency? What are the key elements of a game that promote mastery of mathematics? These are some of the "game changing" questions that Keith Devlin tackles in his new book "Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning."

Keith Devlin is well qualified to explore these important questions. He is a researcher focused on using different media to teach mathematics. He is the author of 30 books; a number of them explore how we learn Math. Devlin has published over 80 research articles and he has won numerous prestigious prizes and awards. And, many of know Keith Devlin as "the Math Guy" on National Public Radio, the man who, since 1995, has been taking important mathematical ideas from current events and explaining them so that general audiences can understand them.

I'm very intrigued with the question of how computers and, specifically, games can help students to learn Math. I have to admit that I'm somewhat apprehensive about the power of video games to change Math education but that's because all I've seen are arithmetic drills with cute graphics and sound effects thrown in to try to keep students engaged. Devlin is not addressing these kinds of games, though. He is thinking of games where students identify deeply with the game. Having, or "being" an avatar is one important way that kids identify with games. In a successful game the player takes on a role and the game supports him or her to grow and mature in that role. If a game aims to improve Math proficiency it can include avatars who are competent in the subject and provide experiences for the player to "grow into" competence. Devlin makes the seemingly subtle but very important distinction between "doing Math" and "being Math." He claims and I agree that someone who thinks of himself or herself as someone who is growing as a "mathematically capable" person is much more likely to succeed than someone who is just "doing Math." The former is an identity while the latter is, to many, a chore.

I lead Math circles in Santa Fe. We gather one night a month. I throw out a Math problem, ask lots of questions, and encourage group members, which includes adults and children, to explore the problem, to make and test conjectures, and most importantly, I urge the group to have fun. People like the group, they learn things, and they do have fun. After reading Devlin's book I realize that I've created an environment of learning that has most of the ten key features of gaming that Devlin borrows for his work:

  1. failure doesn't hurt
  2. risk is part of the game
  3. feedback needs to be immediate
  4. used to being the "star"
  5. trial and error is almost always the best plan
  6. there's always an answer
  7. I can figure it out
  8. competition is always fun and familiar
  9. bosses and rules are less important
  10. used to group action and conflict

I like Devlin's focus on gaming, assuming the right games. I hope that educational games designers use his ideas in crafting educational opportunities. And, in the meantime, teachers (and Math circle leaders) would do well to borrow some of the ideas of what works in the virtual worlds for their classrooms.

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I think these games have to be designed with the emphasis on numbers and calculations, otherwise they could just end up being another computer game.There are already numerous activities online that children can use – so this is just an extension of what already exist.

  2. Thank you for posting this review. I’ve been looking for information related to math and gaming. The research currently available is not all that helpful. I have seen Keith Devlin’s name come up in discussions on gaming and wondered if his book would be worth the read. Now I know it is.

    I, too, have been unimpressed by what I call electronic flashcards. I want to see a game where students get to USE math in ways that are meaningful — not shoot stars from the sky that are labeled with prime numbers.

  3. I’m happy to see research about math and video games. Have you tried Lure of the Labyrinth, available online. It’s geared toward middle school prealgebra. I’m thinking about using it this year in school.

  4. Hi Isabel. I’m not familiar with Lure of the Labyrinth. I’ll have to check it out.

  5. Thank you very much for this review. It changes the way I look at online math games and inspires me to design better games.

  6. I have used Lure of the Labyrinth with my middle schoolers for 4 years. Love it!!!

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